USDA wants to strengthen animal welfare rules under the organic standard

Source: iStock

A proposed regulation that would strengthen and clarify organic animal welfare standards would align consumers’ expectations with production practices and improve their confidence in the organic seal, according to USDA.

The proposed rule, released April 7 by the US Department of Agriculture, also could help level the playing field among organic producers that currently are held to different interpretations of the existing standards and could help maintain the price premium for organic animal products, the agency added.

Based on extensive input from the organic community, including the National Organic Standards Board, the proposed rule would clarify how producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and wellbeing, specify when and which physical alterations are allowed or prohibited and establish minimum indoor and outdoor space and quality requirements.

Bridging the gap between consumer expectation and standards

A lack of specificity in how animals and poultry should be treated and housed has led to a wide range of interpretations that might comply with the letter of the current organic standard, but not with the spirit of the standard as viewed by many consumers.

Surveys show most consumers believe organic poultry and livestock regularly spend time outdoors, have fresh air throughout the day and have significantly more space than conventionally raised livestock, according to the proposed rule.

However, depending on the farm’s interpretation of the current regulation, producers might provide only small doors to a restricted, concrete pouch outside or it could let animal roam in grassy fields.

“This disparity causes consumer confusion about the meaning of the USDA organic label, threatens to erode consumer confidence in the organic label more broadly and perpetuates unfair competition among producers,” USDA writes in the proposed rule.

“This rule would allow [USDA’s Agriculture Marketing Service] and certifying agents to efficiently administer the [National Organic Program],” the agency adds.

Natural and organic meat producer Applegate’s President Steve Lykken in a release echoes USDA’s concerns that “consumer confusion surrounding organic labeling of meat and poultry and what it means for animal welfare is prevalent.”

He lauds the proposed rule as a “long-awaited step in the right direction,” that “will bring consumers’ expectations much closer to reality,” and provide “a framework for raising the bar on animal welfare standards.”

The Organic Trade Association also supports USDA’s efforts to strengthen and improve organic animal welfare standards.

“Ensuring that the high expectations consumers have fore organic foods are met preserves the organic seal’s reputation as the gold standard for agricultural production practices,” Laura Batcha, CEO of OTA said in a release. She added: “OTA is pleased that USDA is moving forward.”

Leveling the playing field

Growing consumer interest in animal welfare and the variance in how the organic standards are interpreted have led to the proliferation of animal welfare certification labeling claims.

“High participation rates among organic livestock and poultry producers in these third-party animal welfare certification programs indicates that the organic label does not provide the level of information consumers need to assess whether a specific brand meets their expectations for animal welfare practices,” USDA writes in the proposed rule.

It hypothesizes establishing clear organic animal welfare standards would “foster a more efficient market for organic products” and ultimately reduce participation in other certification programs, which can be expensive.

It addition, USDA hypothesizes improved animal welfare standards would drive up the amount consumers are willing to pay for organic given their existing willingness to pay more for products made by manufacturers that treat animals humanely.

A closer look at what could change

The proposed rule weighs in at 181 pages filled with details on how much space animals need, what types of medical procedures are allowed and when and directions on how to most humanely transport and slaughter animals. 

Key changes include:

  • Clarifying how producers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and wellbeing.  These include new requirements that surgical procedures are undertaken in ways to minimize pain and stress, ensuring ammonia levels in poultry houses are less than 25 parts per million indoors and administering synthetic medications to treat illness or pain, among other additions.
  • Clarifying when physical alterations may be performed and when they are prohibited. Now allowed alterations must be performed at a reasonably young age by a competent person. The rule also would ban de-beaking, de-snooding, caponization, dubbing, toe trimming of chickens, toe trimming of turkeys unless with infared at the hatchery, beak trimming after 10 days of age, tail docking of cattle, wattling of cattle, face branding of cattle, tail docking of sheep shorter than the distal end of the caudal fold and mulesing of sheep.
  • Establishing maximum indoor and outdoor stocking density for poultry, including at least 1 square foot of space per 2.25 pounds of hen.
  • Clarifying outdoor access and quality to include no solid roof overhead for poultry and at least 50% soil coverage.
  • New requirements for transporting animals to sale or slaughter.
  • Providing for enforcement of USDA organic regulations base on Food Safety and Inspection Service findings.  

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