May 18, 2017

The USDA’s Senseless Obstacles to a More Humane “Organic”

chicken in a pen

Every day, millions of Americans visit their grocery stores, relying on a range of food labels—some more meaningful than others—to help them make healthy, humane, and cost-efficient purchases. One of these labels is “USDA Organic,” a certification that presumably represents humane farm animal welfare standards. But sadly, that assumption is untrue and has been for years. What’s even more reprehensible is that the federal agency directly responsible for ensuring that farmed food products are truthfully labeled—the USDA—is now acting in direct opposition to that mission.  

The Origins of USDA “Organic”

The USDA began regulating organic agriculture in 2000 with the creation of the National Organic Program. For years, the ASPCA and other animal welfare organizations have pushed to include meaningful animal welfare standards in the definition of organic—including minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for chickens, required enrichment for certain species and a prohibition on certain kinds of painful physical alterations like cattle tail docking.  

In January 2017, we celebrated when the USDA National Organic Program announced it would adopt a comprehensive set of federal regulations governing the treatment of animals on USDA Organic-certified farms, based on the recommendation of the National Organics Standards Board. This decision was influenced by tens of thousands of supportive comments from consumers, farmers, companies and public interest groups, all submitted during an official open comment period. The regulations were set to go into effect in March

Enter Politics

When the new Administration postponed implementation of the Organics rule to May, one could make the case this was the consequence of a government in transition, including the late appointment of Sonny Perdue as Secretary of Agriculture. Still, we feared more deliberate intentions were at play.

Those fears were realized when, last week, the USDA announced it is delaying implementation of the new standards another six months—to November 2017—claiming “significant policy and legal issues…that warrant further review.”  The announcement comes with a new public comment period to help the USDA decide which way to go among these declared next steps:

  1. Let the rule take effect in November
  2. Suspend the rule indefinitely and decide at a later date whether to implement, modify or withdraw the rule
  3. Delay implementation of the rule to an even later date
  4. Withdraw the rule entirely

With three of those four choices leading to indefinitely or permanently halting implementation, it’s clear this USDA has little interest in preserving an improved quality of life for animals raised on organic farms. Instead, they seem more interested in satisfying the profit motives of major food companies and their supporters who want to maintain substandard treatment and still call it “organic.”

What makes this delay even more offensive is the fact that a majority of Americans are very concerned about the welfare of farm animals, consider farm animal welfare when buying organic products, and are willing to paying more for those products.  Just last April, a Consumer Reports survey revealed that 86 percent of consumers who often or always buy organic food consider it “highly important that animals used to produce these foods are raised on farms with high standards of animal welfare.”

What You Can Do

It’s frustrating to come so close to a modest elevation in animal protection, only to see it thwarted by corporate interests and a system that relies on animal cruelty. But as with all things political, it’s important to remember that public opinion still has the power to change outcomes, whether those outcomes serve vulnerable people or vulnerable animals.

So I encourage you to visit our Organic Rule alert and urge Sonny Perdue and the USDA to make good on its promises and responsibilities, starting with a very simple request: If you continue to label something “organic,” please mean it.