An analysis completed by The HSUS and the Humane Society Legislative Fund revealed that of 47,000 comments received by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in response to a request for public input on the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule (87 Fed. Reg. 7042), 99.5 percent opposed the agency’s delay of the rule and requested that the agency make it effective and put it in practice. This is an extraordinary outpouring of public concern about a long overdue upgrade and clarification of the organic standards and it would mark a much-needed improvement in federal animal welfare standards for pigs, chickens, cattle, and other farm animals.
The Obama Administration’s USDA promulgated the final rule on January 19th. Right out of the gate, the Trump Administration delayed implementation of the rule for three months, and then it extended the delay another six months, establishing a 60-day comment period where the agency asked the public if its prior expressions of approval for the rule still applied. Our exhaustive analysis of the comments reinforced what the public said in the original round of comments: consumers and farmers want a strong and meaningful standard that amplifies the animal welfare components of the USDA organic label.
The original January 2017 rule was hardly a slapdash production. It had been in the works for over a decade and there was substantial, extended feedback from farmers, consumers, and other key stakeholders that stretched throughout almost the entirety of the four terms of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The overwhelming preponderance of feedback backed the idea that animals raised under organic label be given outdoor access and be afforded high animal welfare standards.
The USDA rule 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.
Let’s be clear that this is not just about animal welfare. It’s about consumers and the marketplace and what people want to buy. And It’s about supporting the livelihood of pig farmers, egg producers, and other men and women involved in livestock agriculture. Organic farmers, with a real brand behind them, can demonstrate to their customers that they are honoring more humane and sustainable husbandry practices on the farm, and can demand a higher price for value-added, ethically sourced products. Consumers will pay a premium because the animals are treated well, not fed antibiotics or hormones, and not chewing on feed crops sprayed with inorganic pesticides.
Conventional producers are fond of saying that people vote with their pocketbooks, and that animal advocates may talk a good game about giving animals more space and outdoor access, but that in the marketplace, consumers default to lower price points rather than higher ethical standards. But if their efforts to subvert this rule tell us anything, they reveal that conventional producers are wary of consumers having this kind of information and this kind of choice. Organic is the fastest growing product line in the grocery business, and consumers are reaching for the products on the shelves with this label emblazoned on the packaging. But they are also asking that the label mean something, and that the weak standards put in place in 2000 (a full decade after the 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Act) be fortified so that there is authenticity behind the organic brand.
If some consumers want “organic” products, then give it to them. They feel better about their food purchases and think it’s healthier and more humane. If farmers want this opportunity to feed the demand of a surging market, give it to them. Every cut of meat, half gallon of milk, and dozen eggs provides revenue-generating opportunities for thousands of family farmers adhering to a standard and showing sound husbandry practices.
These are common sense standards that should be customary and standard on farms. It’s kind of remarkable that allowing animals to be able to stand up and stretch their limbs requires a special label in the first place.
The conventional pork industry has seen more than 90 percent of producers go out of business in the last 40 years, the dairy industry 88 percent, and the egg industry more than 95 percent. Their adoption of industrial-style production methods, combined with the anti-competitive practices, drove farmers out of business and hurt rural communities as much as any other factor. An authentic organic label is about stopping the hemorrhaging of people from rural communities and actually growing the ranks of family farmers.
Make no mistake, the attack on this rule is an attack on family farmers throughout the nation. It is an attempt to gut federal animal welfare standards in agriculture. And it is an attack on consumer choice and the integrity of the organic label. The latest outpouring of comments (46,500+ out of 47,000 comments favored the rule) is democratic redundancy—with stakeholders, time and again, demanding meaningful standards for the organic label.
There should be no confusion about the message. The written record is unmistakable and transparent. The American people have spoken, and it’s time to honor their wishes.