USDA Proposes Historic Welfare Standards for Animals Raised Under the Organic Label
Today the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program released a long-awaited set of animal welfare standards for animals raised under the organic label. This is a historic move by USDA: The announcement marks the first, comprehensive set of regulations governing on-farm treatment of animals ever proposed by the federal government. The ASPCA has worked closely with policymakers and producers to get this rule drafted, and we applaud the National Organic Program’s efforts.
The proposed rule promises to correct the wide disparity between consumers’ expectations regarding the quality of animal welfare under the organic label and the reality of what USDA requires. A poll commissioned by the ASPCA found that at least 67% of organic consumers believe that animals raised organically have access to pasture and fresh air throughout the day, and that they have significantly more space to move than on conventional farms. Contrary to these perceptions, the organic program does not provide clear requirements for space or outdoor access. Considering that 40% of the value of all U.S. organic sales comes from meat, eggs and dairy, strong welfare standards are critical to preserving consumer trust in the organic label.
Though most organic farmers do meet a higher standard of welfare, in recent years the exploding demand for organic foods has led a growing number of large producers to begin raising animals in conditions virtually indistinguishable from factory farming. This trend has been especially evident in the organic egg industry, where two out of every dozen organic eggs are produced in concentrated production facilities.
USDA’s 2014 organic production survey showed that the average number of animals per USDA organic farm is rising, presumably made possible by more crowded living conditions and more industrialized methods. From 2008 to 2014, the number of organic certified egg-laying hens more than doubled, yet the number of egg farms dropped. Each year that passed without strong animal welfare regulations in place gave these producers a stronger foothold in the organic market, undercutting higher welfare farmers.
The proposed rule would, for the first time, specify minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry and prohibit certain physical alterations of animals. The ASPCA is in good company welcoming these momentous changes. We joined our voice with 13 consumer advocacy, health, environmental, and animal-protection organizations to demand stronger animal welfare regulations under the organic program; together with our friends at the Animal Welfare Institute and Farm Animal Concerns Trust, we amassed the support of over 60 farmers who believe that high animal welfare is a benchmark of organic production; we rallied more than 30 ASPCA veterinarians who urged USDA to release meaningful animal welfare standards; and we heard from a world-renowned animal welfare expert attesting to the importance of outdoor access.
Today’s proposed rule marks a major milestone in the legal protection of animals raised for food. Our government is slowly but surely beginning to come around to the necessity of protecting farm animals. The proposed changes to the organic program are an important start.
USDA will soon begin an open, public comment period on the draft rule. You can help animals by submitting a comment right from our website; to be notified when the comment period is live and it’s time to take action, join the ASPCA Advocacy Brigade now at aspca.org/joinbrigade.