Inside Organics Blog

Organic animal welfare needs to be gold standard

By Harriet Behar, MOSES

The recently proposed rule for organic animal welfare has caused a ruckus from the farm to the marbled halls of Congress. The rule has been based upon numerous National Organic Standards Board recommendations over the years, as well as countless hours of public testimony and NOSB discussion (a very great amount of time). The 90 days given for public comment has given all sides time to delve into the proposed changes, and provide the National Organic Program with suggested improvements to make this addition to the organic regulation practical and meaningful.

Since our current rule was seen as lacking in animal welfare, many store buyers and consumers have been requesting secondary animal welfare certification in addition to organic certification. This secondary certification has put an extra burden on producers, while putting a spotlight on an area where the organic label has been lax. It is time for this animal welfare rule to be put in place, to bring our label back up to the gold standard we all seek.

Since implementation of the organic regulation in 2002, the NOP and various certifiers have had different interpretations about outdoor access for livestock, which has caused confusion. Expectations for ruminants were clarified five years ago when the pasture rule was put in place. This rule defined which species were impacted and laid out verifiable expectations for pasture-based forages for these grazing animals. This put an end to continuous confinement of ruminants, and verified the truth of those milk cartons that showed happy cows out on pasture.

It is time to extend this truth-in-labeling to other organic species, especially poultry. For years, the allowance of porches has been an acceptable form of outdoor access for organic poultry. These porches—with no access to soil and not large enough to even hold a significant percentage of the birds present in the hen houses—have allowed many commercial egg operations to develop lucrative organic laying hen and broiler operations, since basically all they needed to do was a small amount of porch construction (or none at all) and switch to organic feed. There is very little difference between these houses and a “cage-free” non-organic operation.

There is much more to humane treatment of animals than just feeding them organic feed and providing them token access to the outdoors. Poultry need to scratch and hunt for insects, eat green vegetation, flap their wings and move around in the natural world.

Unfortunately, a previous NOP administration had approved porches or open windows that allow fresh air, but no access to sun, wind, soil and vegetation, as acceptable outdoor access. To change that interpretation in a meaningful way has required the time-consuming method of rule-making.

As with all new regulations put in place by the federal government, any negative impacts must be addressed. The federal agency must make its case that there is either minimal impact (usually economic), or that the new mandate is a necessary change for a variety of reasons, and that this mitigates any negative impact.

The tug of war on the organic poultry animal welfare standards is between those who want organic poultry to want to retain the status quo and those who want meaningful outdoor access. While those who provide little to no outdoor access are not a majority of the organic poultry operations, they do represent a strong majority of the organic poultry meat and egg production in the U.S. Large operations, mirroring the production systems of non-organic poultry operations, have made significant investment in producing “organic” eggs based upon the problematic NOP interpretation that allowed these operations to confine their birds. This situation is similar to organic dairies that did not provide meaningful grazing for their operations before the pasture rule, which created an uneven playing field. Allowing some poultry producers to not provide outside access makes for higher costs and an uneven playing field for those operations that do provide their organic poultry the opportunity to scratch in the soil, eat bugs and greens and move freely under the sun.

The proposed rule is an animal welfare-focused regulation. While it was in the public-comment stage and not yet finalized, there was an effort to introduce a rider to a bill in the Senate that would have stopped the proposed rule in its tracks. Non-organic agricultural interests did not want the possibility of animal welfare regulations on their operations. They joined with commercial organic operations that did not want to change the status quo. They used Avian Flu as a reason that poultry should remain confined year round, even though our regulation currently allows for temporary confinement if there is a threat of disease.

Those of us who want to see this regulation go through the public comment process (which usually results in changes to the final rule), have won the day—so far. Until Congress leaves for their summer recess, there is still a chance that this rider could be re-introduced for a vote. MOSES will be watching this issue closely. We will let you know if the need arises again to contact members of Congress. If this regulation is stopped from moving through the process, it would be a very bad precedent. Non-organic business interests should not have the power to compromise the integrity of the organic label.

On the other side of the tug of war are those who feel that the proposed animal welfare regulations do not go far enough. The European Union requires over 40 square feet per bird, which can include the square footage accumulated on rotated pasture. The approximate 2 square feet of outdoor access area for chickens in the proposed rule seems way too small for all of the birds in a permanent pastured area to use the outdoors at the same time and move around freely. However, for those who have pastured poultry operations that use moveable pens, having a much larger square-foot-per-bird requirement would make the size of these pens impractical to move and expensive to build.

When the NOSB first suggested this amount of outdoor space for chickens, the board included a 50-percent-vegetation requirement to encourage innovation by farmers to provide healthy and meaningful outdoor access. Vegetated ground protects soil and water quality better than compacted, dusty “feedlots.” It is still being debated if 2 square feet is acceptable or not, depending on the type of management system present on the operation.

To meet this suggested requirement in a moveable system, pens or mobile houses could be moved along with fencing to provide the greens, living soil, bugs and worms that vegetation will provide. For stationary houses, the outdoor access areas could be rotated when they are less than 50 percent vegetated. I have seen large scale operations that have 3-4 pastures for their birds around the stationary house. Once the birds have eaten down a pasture, it is planted (and irrigated if needed) with a fast-growing plant, such as oats. Once the plants are growing, the birds can be rotated back in.

Since the NOP has removed this 50 percent vegetation requirement from the proposed rule, the square foot required per bird is quite small. Organic Valley currently requires 5 square feet outdoor access for their organic chicken producers with stationary houses. The proposed regulation does not distinguish between moveable pasture-based systems and stationary houses. Many organizations have been providing public comment detailing the need to require different square footage, recognizing the unique needs of each system. Many organizations are also making the case that 50 percent vegetation is an essential part of the NOSB recommendation, since it provides a healthy environment that allows for meaningful natural behavior.

The proposed regulation also has some problematic wording affecting dairy animals and swine. Finding the happy medium between animal welfare, practicality, and a level economic playing field is not easy.

MOSES and many other organizations in the organic community have commented on the proposed rule to ensure that it meets the needs of producers while also providing for the natural behavior of livestock. The deadline for these comments was July 13. The next step is for the USDA to review these comments. We’ll keep you informed of the progress with this proposed rule.

Harriet Behar, MOSES Senior Organic Specialist and member of the National Organic Standards Board, answers farmers’ questions about certification and organic practices. Email harriet@mosesorganic.org.

From the July | August 2016 Issue

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