New standards ensure humane conditions across board for organic livestock, poultry
By Larissa McKenna, Food Animal Concerns Trust
The USDA finalized its Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule in January, immediately before the change in administration. This rule sets new and improved welfare standards for certified organic farm animals, adding to – and in some cases clarifying – the existing organic regulations. It also marks the first time that federal regulations will govern the treatment of animals on farms.
The new welfare standards are a significant improvement over the current regulations regarding the care and treatment of animals raised under the certified organic seal.
Trump administration has added a 6-month delay to the finalized animal welfare rule and is asking again for public comment to decide whether to:
1. implement in November;
2. suspend indefinitely;
3. delay further;
4. withdraw altogether.
A lot of people worked really hard to get this rule in place to ensure humane treatment of organic livestock. Please join us in supporting #1.
Improve Animal Welfare
USDA’s organic regulations already require that animals be raised in conditions that allow them to express their natural behaviors. The refinements and additions included in the new standards help clarify what this means, and specify which conditions are acceptable or unacceptable.
When these welfare standards are implemented, organically raised animals, particularly animals that are raised on industrial-style organic operations, will benefit. According to the USDA’s National Agriculture Statistic Service, more than 22 million animals were raised organically in 2015. So the impact will be sizeable.
The new standards set the bar higher in many respects. Some of the most notable changes are for poultry, specifically addressing the requirement that organically raised chickens have true access to the outdoors. Under the new standards, enclosed porch systems and concrete pads will no longer satisfy the outdoor access requirement in organic poultry production. The USDA explicitly defines “indoor” and “outdoor” space in terms of how walls, roofs, and floors are designed – and requires that birds be able to move freely into outdoor space. “Enclosed porches are not considered outdoors,” states the agency regarding what constitutes outdoor space. Once these standards take effect, all organic poultry birds must have meaningful and ready access to outside space. The birds’ outdoor areas must also include both soil and vegetative cover to allow the birds to engage in natural foraging behaviors while reducing soil erosion and nutrient run off.
Additional poultry requirements included in the new rule will improve the comfort and health of the birds’ indoor environments. The new standards place restrictions on the use of artificial light, limit the amount of ammonia in the air indoors, and set requirements for perching space, scratching, and dust bathing areas for laying hens, making it more likely that the birds will be able to engage in their natural behaviors. The rule prohibits forced molting.
The standards address living conditions for mammals as well. Daily outdoor access is required for all animals, and there are new provisions about group housing for swine. Also included in the standards are humane handling requirements for transporting livestock and poultry to sale or slaughter. For example, bedding material must be provided to keep livestock clean and dry, and “seasonal-appropriate ventilation” is required to protect animals against temperature-related stress. To minimize the suffering of sick or injured animals, the standards also address practices used for euthanasia, and prohibit suffocation and the use of manual blunt force.
The standards also prohibit or restrict certain types of physical alterations, such as tail docking for cows and pigs, debeaking of birds, and desnooding of turkeys.
The new standards are a step in the right direction to improve the lives of organically raised animals. However, continued improvement and expansion of these animal welfare standards is needed. Providing daily access to the outdoors is not equivalent to raising animals in a pasture-based system. The standards also do not require that pigs have access to soil or vegetation when they are outdoors. The rule also fails to set minimum space requirements for pigs, turkeys, ducks, and geese, which USDA says it will address in future rulemaking.
Level the Playing Field
Most certified organic livestock and poultry farmers already meet a very high standard of welfare for their animals. However, there historically has been significant variability in how the rule is interpreted and implemented by different producers. For example, in 2010 the USDA Office of the Inspector General cited inconsistent application of the outdoor access requirements for poultry, particularly with regard to the use of enclosed porches systems.
Why is this? Due to the growing demand for organic foods, some industrial-style operations have taken advantage of loopholes in the organic rule to aggressively expand into the organic marketplace. This is not fair to farmers who are committed to preserving the deep-rooted integrity and original spirit of organic agriculture. These farmers are at a competitive disadvantage because they don’t take shortcuts when it comes to the care they take with their animals.
By reducing variability in how the regulations are implemented, and closing some of the most problematic loopholes, the new welfare standards should level marketplace standing and create more uniform animal welfare expectations. As USDA states, “clear rules allow for effective enforcement and fair competition all among certified organic livestock producers.”
Although not exclusively intended to be an animal welfare label, shoppers and eaters have high expectations for certified organic foods. And it is big business – the USDA reported over $43 billion in sales of certified organic in 2015.
In an online survey Food Animal Concerns Trust (FACT) conducted among its supporters that same year, more than 70 percent of respondents reported that they thought organically raised animals should have meaningful outdoor access and adequate living space. Consumer Reports found similar results in a national telephone survey also conducted in 2015. In addition, the Consumer Reports survey found that 84 percent of respondents said that “better conditions for farm animals” were important or very important to them. Informed consumers are attuned to how animals are raised and expect organic animals to be raised humanely.
What happens to consumer confidence when it is exposed that some organically raised chickens spend their lives on a concrete pad or within an enclosed porch rather than truly outdoors? The integrity of the certified organic seal, and possibly individual products that are certified organic, is undermined in consumers’ minds. The USDA states that this new rule is meant to “assure consumers that organically produced livestock products meet a consistent standard,” maintaining that crucial fidelity of the certified organic seal.
What Happens Next
The new administration is in the process of reviewing this rule, along with all of the other rules that were finalized but not implemented during the previous administration. As such, all effective dates have been delayed by 60 days to allow for this regulatory review. Accounting for this procedural delay, the final welfare rule should take effect on May 19, 2017, contingent upon the results of the review. Implementation for livestock and poultry producers will then be phased in over five years, depending on the species raised and the farm’s date of organic certification.
Going forward, it is in our best interest that the rule proceeds as scheduled according to the agency’s published timetable, and that it is fully implemented and adequately enforced. Stronger welfare standards would improve the lives of millions of farm animals each year. The clarified standards would also help to level the playing field for farmers who already meet a very high standard of welfare for their animals. Finally, the new standards would reduce confusion and inspire consumer confidence that the meat, milk, and eggs they purchase bearing the USDA certified organic seal do indeed come from animals that were raised humanely.
Larissa McKenna is the humane farming program director at Food Animal Concern Trust (FACT), a national nonprofit that promotes the safe and humane production of meat, milk, and eggs.
From the March | April 2017 Issue