Zlati Meyer , USA TODAY || 7:02 a.m. ET June 8, 2017

 

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For diners who want to know what kind of life the animals on their dinner plates had, there’s a new source of insight.

An independent program that certifies restaurants, cafeterias and some packaged-goods companies as meeting certain health and nutrition standards now include certification for animal welfare.

The new service is being provided by Eat REAL, a Washington, D.C. nonprofit that says it is devoted to improving the healthfulness of restaurant fare and the humane treatment of farm animals. It began partnering with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA, last month to run the program.

The group’s grading is the latest example of how nutrition and the conditions of animals are seen as being important enough to restaurants and their customers that they are reaching past government agencies for assurance.

Once certified, a business gets an 11-inch ceramic dinner plate, emblazoned with “REAL Certified,” to display. Its also gets window decals and a digital copy of the certification design to use on menus, if it chooses. The second part of Eat REAL’s name stands for Responsible, Epicurean and Agricultural Leadership.

“We’re trying to bring a new level of transparency,” said Lawrence Williams, CEO of Eat REAL, which is funded through private donations, grants and certification payments from restaurants that want to be rated.

The group said the plan takes into consideration the conditions of farm animals at every stage of life. It bans “inhumane and unsustainable practices including caging, crating, crowding and overuse of antibiotics.”

The animal-welfare program goes beyond Eat REAL’s past role, which involved certifying restaurants based on factors like food nutrition, the inclusion of whole grains in meals and the avoidance of unhealthy deep-fried items as well as other factors.

Restaurants that want to be certified by Eat REAL submit to an audit by an independent nutritionist, who then assigns points based on criteria like whether eggs come from chickens raised cage-free, whether seafood is sustainably sourced and whether animals were raised in pastures, not pens.

Previously, Eat REAL looked at factors like portion sizes, local sourcing of ingredients and whether a menu invites customers to make healthy substitutions

Eat REAL said it has approximately 500 food-service companies on its certification roster, from fine dining and fast-casual restaurants to school cafeterias and food brands, such as The University of California San Diego and Hint Water.

“We saw how much the food industry writ large was contributing to disease — diabetes and obesity and heart disease,” Williams said. “We’re trying to recognize and reward, from a consumer perspective, those doing more of the right things and less of wrong things.”

According to Williams, most independent restaurants are certified for free, but chains, corporations, and schools are billed. The initial certification costs about $400 to $1,000 a year, depending on size, though to keep the certification going after the first year is about half that amount.

Technomic, which tracks food industry trends, said 54% of diners want to know about ingredients, calorie counts and nutrition in a restaurant’s dishes. When seeking out healthy options on menus, customers think about whether ingredients are natural, organic or light.

Luna Grill, with 36 locations in California and Texas, is among the restaurants that has earned Eat REAL certification.

“If you want to affect change in the food service industry,” said Maria Trakas Pourteymour, a founder of Luna Grill, “you have to vote with your dollars.”

“As consumers, it’s hard to know who is representing the industry as far as responsible sourcing and preparing your food,” she continued, adding, “There’s not many ways to find restaurants like that.”