Yesterday, Nicholas Kristof wrote an extraordinary column on my new book, The Humane Economy, celebrating the enormous range of progress we’ve made in driving reform for animals in so many different sectors of industry. The New York Times columnist noted, of course, that our work isn’t done, and that while the humane economy is a powerful force, there are plenty of people and industries who resist it.
One class of influential decision makers who resist us on animal protection, particularly on farm animal protection, are agriculture-oriented lawmakers in Congress. A substantial number of House and Senate members resisted the 2013 reforms we pushed with the egg industry to set new minimum standards for the treatment of laying hens. (Fortunately, we ran the table with America’s major food retailers and now have enshrined in practice a de facto ban on future cage confinement of hens, as soon as these company policies take effect in the years ahead.)
The latest gambit from some members of Congress is to block the USDA from completing its proposed changes to the legal definition of “organic” – a set of changes from the executive agency that promises a dramatic upgrade in protections and embraces higher animal welfare standards that The HSUS has long advocated and that I wrote about with great enthusiasm a few weeks ago.
The rule covers a whole array of housing, husbandry, and management topics, including the prohibition of certain painful practices, like tail docking of pigs and cattle, and debeaking of birds. A new section covering animal handling and transport to slaughter is also proposed for addition. Importantly, the rule sets minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for egg-laying chickens, and requires that producers provide a sufficient number of exits and outdoor enrichment to entice birds to go outside on a daily basis. It also specifies that covered porches and similar structures do not qualify as outdoor space. While existing organic poultry operations have five years to come into compliance with outdoor access requirements for birds, the minimums for indoor space and all other welfare standards in the proposed rule will come into effect one year after the rule becomes final.
The Obama Administration’s move demonstrates the changing social consensus on animals among consumers who are increasingly concerned about farm animal welfare. A 2015 Consumer Reports survey found that over 70 percent of Americans believe there should be meaningful minimum-size living space requirements for farm animals raised under the organic label, and that the animals should have access to the outdoors, yet current regulations do not guarantee these basic protections for organically raised animals.
The USDA obviously saw the changes afoot in the food retail sector, with more than 175 major companies – from Walmart to McDonald’s to Kroger – announcing new policies in their supply chain to take animals into account. Unfortunately, agribusiness still has inordinate sway in Congress, and there’s an effort this week in the Senate Appropriations Committee to prohibit the USDA from making these new rules final. We must defeat this anti-consumer, anti-animal welfare maneuvering.
I’ve asked you to weigh in with the USDA and support their effort to upgrade protections for animals in the organic standards. Today, I want to ask you to contact your two U.S. Senators by calling 888-833-8392, and urge them to oppose any efforts by Congress to derail the USDA’s efforts to make animal-friendly changes to the legal definition of “organic.” Congress should be supporting, not subverting, the movement toward a humane economy.