The sign at the entrance to Hunter's Head Tavern in Upperville says, "Good Food Served Here." Now the three-year-old English-style pub can boast that it is the first restaurant in the United States to receive the "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" label for the beef stew, shepherd's pie, pork barbecue sandwich and other meat and poultry dishes on its menu.
The distinction was awarded by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a year-old nonprofit group based in Herndon whose mission is to promote the welfare of farm animals by establishing humane standards for their treatment from birth to slaughter. The group's board of directors includes senior members of the Humane Society of the United States and the president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It is funded by a consortium of animal welfare organizations.
Sandy Lerner, who owns Hunter's Head and the nearby 800-acre Ayrshire Farm, which supplies the tavern with most of its meat, eggs and poultry, said she pursued the certification because she fervently believes in the importance of treating farm animals humanely. Lerner, co-founder of Cisco Systems Inc., grew up on a farm in California where what she called "farming values" were instilled in her.
"The usual thing in my family was that when the cow died you felt so bad you couldn't eat it, so you gave it to a neighbor," Lerner said.
HFAC's standards are based on those of Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, incorporating scientific research, veterinary advice and practical experience in the farming industry.
"The highlights are no cages, no gestation stalls and no forced molting," said HFAC's Executive Director Adele Douglass. "Also, animals aren't allowed to be fed antibiotics or hormones."
Animals must be fed "wholesome, nutritious food" that cannot become contaminated or stale, and they must always have access to clean water, Douglass said.
Carol Jenkins, manager of Hunter's Head, called the regulations "just common sense."
"Our starting point was that we knew we already adhered to their guidelines," she said.
Rachel Querry, deputy director of media relations for HSUS, said no federal law protects the welfare of farm animals. "They are routinely confined and subjected to inhumane treatment," she said.
Lerner blamed this on what she called "factory farming," a practice she said dates from the post-World War II era, when chemicals, antibiotics and hormones were introduced on farms to increase productivity and profits.
"So we've got a bunch of cheap food," she said. "Can't we have healthy food, too?"
The answer is yes, Lerner said, and humane farming need not jeopardize profits. "I am absolutely committed to farming profitably," she said.
Lerner said she expected her free-range hogs and poultry to be profitable by the end of the year, followed in the not-too-distant future by her cattle, which take longer to raise and require more staff to care for them.
Ayrshire Farm specializes in raising rare and ancient breeds and has about 225 head of cattle, including ancient White Parks, Guernseys, milking Shorthorns and Scottish Highlands. The farm also raises 42 Gloucester Old Spot pigs -- of which there are only 200 worldwide. During Thanksgiving and Christmas, the farm sells rare breed and white domestic turkeys, as well as Cornish Rock Cross chickens.
Both Lerner and HFAC say the quality of the food Americans eat depends, at least in part, on the quality of care the animals receive.
"Our beef tastes as good as beef can get," Jenkins said. "The last time The Washington Post wrote an article about mad cow disease and mentioned that our beef stew came from organically raised cows, we ran out of stew, something that's never happened before. We ended up giving out rain checks."
The new "Certified Humane" label has sparked more calls to the tavern and favorable responses from customers, including some on last weekend's annual Spring Farm Tour of Loudoun farms, wineries and other agricultural centers, said Mimi Stein, Ayrshire Farm's special projects manager.
Ayrshire Farm also received the "Certified Humane" label this month, joining 16 farms across the United States that have fulfilled the rigorous certification requirements. The other farms include Touchstone Farm in Amissville, Va., and two in Maryland: Deer Creek Beef in Bel Air and Hedgeapple Farm in Buckeystown.
Hunter's Head was the first restaurant to seek certification under the year-old program, Douglass said. She said she hopes more restaurants will follow its lead.
Stein said meticulous documentation was required to satisfy HFAC inspectors, who spent four to five hours at the farm for the final stage of certification. The inspectors also were vetted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Marketing Service, which made sure the guidelines were followed. Retaining the certification requires an annual inspection and fees.
In addition to the "Certified Humane" label, both Hunter's Head and Ayrshire Farm hold "100 percent organic" certifications from the USDA.
"Organic standards were written to protect the environment," Douglass said. "They are a 'crop standard.' In recent years, they have added some welfare standards for livestock stating that animals must be fed organic feed and eat in organic fields. The humane standards are based totally on the animals. They do not require, for example, that they use organic fields or organic feed."
With increasing consumer concern about the long-term health implications of genetically modified food and the use of hormones in meat, Lerner and the staff of Ayrshire Farm and Hunter's Head Tavern are committed to their cause. As a result, they have formed the Virginia Organic Producers' and Consumers' Association.
"We're just beginning," Stein said. "We hope to have lectures for farmers and consumers, and we also want to help farmers with user-friendly ways to go through the humane-certification process. "
Jenkins called the movement toward humane farming "a revolution in the making."
"I'm surprised by the positive reception to the humane effort," she said. "The tide is turning, and it's very satisfying."