In its final major action for animals – this one perhaps promising to improve the treatment for millions and millions of animals in the coming years — the Obama Administration today finalized a rule that clarifies and updates the requirements of the “organic” label, establishing clear and meaningful protections for farm animals raised under that label and embracing higher welfare standards that The HSUS has long advocated. The rule is a game-changer for the $40 billion organic market whose consumers often believe that organic farm animals are raised with strong animal welfare standards.
The new rule, issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, encompasses an array of housing, husbandry, and management standards, including the prohibition of certain cruel practices like tail docking of cattle; the transportation of sick, injured, or lame animals; or mulesing of sheep (cutting the skin from the back legs and rump). It clarifies the requirement that animals cannot be tightly confined, and sets minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for egg-laying chickens. The rule requires that producers provide a sufficient number of exits and design outdoor areas to promote and encourage birds to go outside on a daily basis.
A commitment to improving animal welfare has always been one of the central tenets of the organic program, but the lack of well-defined requirements has led to inconsistency in how the standards are applied. A 2010 audit of the organic program by the USDA’s Office of the Inspector General found, for example, that the absence of a regulatory provision defining “outdoor access” requirements for birds led to serious inconsistency among organic egg producers: many producers allow their birds to go outside, while some interpret the outdoor access requirement to be met merely with covered concrete porches. The agency realized that this disparity results in organic farmers who follow the spirit of the law being undercut, and threatens consumer confidence in the organic program.
A 2015 Consumer Reports survey found that a majority of consumers believe the organic label already requires meaningful outdoor access. The new rule will make the organic certifying standards consistent, more closely aligning these standards with consumer expectations on animal welfare. By clarifying the outdoor access requirement and laying out other key standards, including prohibiting certain painful practices and requiring that animals have enough space to stand up, lie down, and turn around, the USDA has ensured that consumers who buy organic are more likely to get what they pay for.
The rule is supported by the most prominent organic trade groups and producers, including the Organic Trade Association, National Organic Coalition, Organic Valley, and Egg Innovations. They’re joined by some large-scale non-organic producers, such as Perdue Farms, which have also endorsed the new rule.
The finalizing of the organics rule is a signature victory for farm animals – with more practical consequences for animals that may rival or exceed any of our pathbreaking ballot measures for farm animals, since the standards apply to farm animals raised and sold under this increasingly popular label in every state. And it comes at a time when there is a cascade of evidence of consumer and corporate clamoring for higher welfare standards for farm animals. In November, 78 percent of voters favored a ban on confining farm animals in cage or crates and stipulated that eggs, pork, and veal sold in the state must come from farms that honor that standards, regardless of where they’re located. Within the last two years, more than 200 major food-selling companies, including Walmart and McDonald’s, have set time frames for going 100 percent cage-free.
In recent weeks, more than a dozen of the world’s largest food service companies and other major food sellers have also committed to higher standards for chickens raised for their meat – indicating a strong start for a movement to provide better living conditions for broiler birds. The same trends we’re seeing in evidence in the United States are happening in other major parts of the world.
The diligent work of HSUS state and national Agriculture Advisory Council members was key in getting this rule passed. We are immensely grateful to the Obama Administration for making this matter a priority and completing such a tangible action before the President’s second term ends. The administration’s record on animal welfare is unmatched by any previous administration, and sets a high standard for its successors.