USDA: Organic Labeling Should Include Animal Welfare Standards

Dr. Paul Lewis, USDA National Organic Program

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We write to you to provide public comment on the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) proposed rule to amend the organic livestock and poultry production requirements.  The Fair Farms campaign, which has more than 70 partners from the business and nonprofit community,  applauds AMS for putting forth regulations aimed to safeguard the welfare of millions of animals across the country. While we do not believe that the proposed rule goes far enough to meet reasonable lay consumer expectations as to what kind of welfare standards are required for livestock raised under the USDA Organic standard, we write in decisive support AMS’s effort to provide better protections for animals raised under USDA organic.

We find it disheartening that basic welfare requirements – such as ensuring that animals have enough space to lie down, stand up, and fully stretch their limbs, or providing fresh air and ventilation – are not already in place, as most consumers would expect. According to a poll conducted by the ASPCA, close to 70% of consumers who buy USDA organic meat products believe that the animals had full access to pasture, fresh air throughout the day, and significantly more space to move around. Therefore, we are supportive of measures under the proposed rule to (1) require that animals have “unencumbered” access to the outdoors, (2) set indoor and outdoor living space requirements, (3) guarantee that animals have the ability to engage in their natural behaviors, and (4) prohibit widespread and painful procedures, like face branding, de-beaking and tail-docking.

Without specific animal welfare requirements like these, some USDA organic farmers who provide high standards of care for their animals are at an economic disadvantage compared to farmers who raise their animals under much lower welfare standards. For example, some USDA organic farmers provide their animals full access to the outdoors, while other USDA organic farmers provide no access and raise their animals similar to conventional, intensive agriculture.

Unfortunately, the proposed rule has some grey areas and does not go far enough in providing adequate protections for all animals under the USDA organic program . (Nor do we believe these standards come anywhere close to the far more rigorous standards of labels such as Animal Welfare Approved (AWA).) For instance, while the rule generally prohibits severely painful procedures like tail docking, it still allows these procedures to take place “with documentation that alternative methods to prevent harm failed” – offering a loophole to some farmers who lack the ingenuity and compassion to discontinue using these inhumane procedures. Secondly, the rule only requires outdoor space to have 50% soil cover, allowing the other half to be covered by gravel or concrete. Lastly, the new rule requires that every bird have only 2 square feet of space outdoors. USDA organic producers, like Organic Valley, already require farmers to provide at least 5 square feet per bird; the European Union requires at least 43 square feet per bird. This minimal requirement of 2 square feet means there will be a wide discrepancy in how USDA organic products are raised – with some farmers providing close to two sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper of space per bird, while other farmers provide 100 times that amount.

Despite these concerns with the proposed rule, we remain supportive of AMS’s effort to provide better protections for the millions of animals raised under the USDA organic standard every year. This rule is a step in the right direction to meet consumer expectations of the USDA Organic label and also to provide better economic protections for the organic farmers who already are raising their animals under high welfare standards.

In fairness to USDA organic farmers and consumers – we urge AMS to minimally pass the proposed rule as is, and ideally with even greater welfare protections for farm animals. Thank you for your time and consideration.

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