Celebrating the USDA’s move on Aug. 5 to reinstate organic animal welfare standards, organic advocates are hailing this as a “resounding victory” for organic farmers, their livestock, and organic consumers.

As such, it reverses the withdrawal by the Trump Administration in 2018 of the 2017 Organic Livestock and Poultry rule.

The 2017 rule, which took 10 years to develop, governed the living conditions, transport and slaughter of organic livestock.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) proposes to amend the organic livestock and poultry production requirements by adding new provisions for livestock handling and transport for slaughter and avian living conditions; and expanding and clarifying existing requirements covering livestock care and production practices and mammalian living conditions.

“USDA has again confirmed our stance that ‘organic’ does mean consistently protecting animal welfare,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney with the Center for Food Safety.

She also said that USDA’s proposed rule appears to fully reinstate the requirements recommended by the National Organic Standards Board and organic stakeholders. This would also include crucial updates that require organic chickens to have adequate space indoors and access to the outdoors, thus eliminating  “porches” that have allowed some factory-farm chicken operations to market their poultry and eggs as organic.

This screened-in area is an example of a chicken “porch.”

Screened-in “porches” are generally small enclosures placed just outside of the chicken houses that the chickens can access from inside the chicken house. However, some say this is a loophole that large commercial chicken farms, where thousands of birds can be housed in a single unit, use to say their chickens have access to the outdoors and that their eggs and chickens are therefore organic. 

A 2002 decision to count screened in porches as outdoor space caused a rift among large-scale and small-scale producers, with the small-scale producers saying the porches don’t give the chickens an equal opportunity to access the outdoors.

In June, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that he wanted the rulemaking to include a proposal to disallow the use of porches as outdoor space in organic production.

Years of litigation
After four years of litigation on the issue of humane treatment of organic livestock, the U.S. District Court in the Northern District of California decided in favor of allowing the USDA to redo and update its rulemaking. The Trump Administration had said it wasn’t USDA’s job to regulate humane treatment of animals.

But in 2018, the federal court rejected the former administration’s arguments and held that the withdrawal of the rule that had set organic animal welfare standards injures the organizations’ members because it undermines the organic label for consumers. 

Agriculture Secretary Tom  Vilsack said the agency looks forward to receiving public comments on this, and after reviewing comments, USDA will publish a final rule.

“We are glad the court has cleared the way for the National Organic Program to finally align with the expectations of consumers,” said Cristina Stella, managing attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund (https://aldf.org), one of the plaintiffs in the case. 

Consumer trust key to organic farming
“Reinstating the organic animal welfare rule is a huge victory in securing the trust of consumers and farmers alike, who expect meaningful and consistent standards for animal welfare under the organic label,” said Abby Youngblood, executive director at the National Organic Coalition and a plaintiff in the case.

Rick Salazar of Earp, CA, is organic all the way. As far as he’s concerned, organic food is healthier for him and his wife.

Like many other organic advocates, he assumes that meat and poultry bearing the organic label has been raised humanely, which includes access to the outdoors and not being confined to housing that can be unhealthy. 

When asked if humane treatment is important to him, his answer comes quickly. “Definitely,” he says. “It makes a big difference to us.”

Beef raiser Virginia Good Vlahovich’s email address is “Happy Cows Forever” — a clear message that she and her husband Tom treat their cows humanely. They have their cows out on pasture and haven’t grained them for four or five years. And although their farm isn’t certified organic — which is true for many small-scale farms that follow organic practices, such as not using synthetic fertilizers or harmful pesticides — they know that their customers trust them to treat their animals humanely. It’s an important part of being good farmers and attracting and keeping customers.

“I would say that’s true,” said Vlahovich.

As a board member of the Sedro-Woolley Washington Farmers Market, she said she can see that more and more people are choosing organic. And she can also see the trust they have in organic farmers to treat their animals and poultry humanely.

“I welcome this news,” said Eiko Vojkovich, co-owner of the Skagit River Ranch in Western Washington. “Our job as farmers is to let our animals thrive in their own environment. Treating them humanely is important to us. Consumers trust that we’re doing that.”

Eiko, her husband George and their daughter Nicole raise organic cattle, pigs, chickens and turkeys. According to their website, their broiler chickens are grown outdoors in movable pens where they can roam on green pastures in the fresh air. They eat grass and organic grain supplemented with flaxseed and sea kelp to help ensure they have plenty of vitamins and trace minerals.

As for the farm’s eggs, the farm’s website says that “Unlike so called ‘free-range’ chickens that are raised in confinement, our laying hens really live on pasture and eat grass, insects and organic grains as they roam in the green fields all day long. Our eggs sell so quickly at farmer’s markets that our customers stand in line for 15 minutes before the opening bell rings. They are that good!”

Honing in on consumer trust, Vilsack said earlier this year: “I understand we’ve got some work to do in rebuilding the trust between the department and the organic industry, and I am committed to that. And those who work at USDA are committed to that.”

About food safety
According to a paper published in PubMed.gov by A M de Passillé  and J Rushen: “A greater appreciation of the link between animal welfare and animal health makes the link with food safety clearer. Improvements in animal welfare have the potential to reduce on-farm risks to food safety, principally through reduced stress-induced immunosuppression, reduced incidence of infectious disease on farms and reduced shedding of human pathogens by farm animals, and through reduced antibiotic use and antibiotic resistance.

“Health problems of farm animals continue to be serious threats to animal welfare, and measures of disease incidence can serve as animal-based measures of animal welfare. Continued development of hazard analysis and critical control point-based approaches to animal welfare would allow a smoother integration of animal welfare and food safety standards.”

The proposed rule
The proposed rule would update the USDA organic regulations for livestock production. The proposed changes would address a range of topics related to the care of organic livestock, including:

Livestock health care practices — The proposed rule would specify which physical alteration procedures, such as debeaking and tail docking, are prohibited or restricted for use on organic livestock. The proposed livestock health care practice standards include requirements for euthanasia to reduce suffering of any sick or disabled livestock;

Living conditions — The proposed rule would set separate standards for mammalian and avian livestock living conditions to better reflect the needs and behaviors of the different species, as well as related consumer expectations. The proposed mammalian livestock standards would cover both ruminants and swine. The proposed avian livestock living standards would set maximum indoor and outdoor stocking densities to ensure the birds have sufficient space to engage in natural behaviors;

Transport of animals — The proposed rule would add new requirements on the transport of organic livestock to sale or slaughter;

Slaughter — The  proposed rule would add a new section to clarify how organic slaughter facility practices and USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) regulations work together to support animal welfare.

Go here (https://public-inspection.federalregister.gov/2022-16980.pdf) to learn more about the rule.

A listening session
USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) will host a virtual listening session on Aug. 19 from noon to approximately 2 p.m. EDT to hear comments regarding this proposed rule. The deadline to register for oral comment is 11:59 p.m. EDT, Aug. 15. Access information will be published on the AMS website prior to the listening session at https://www.ams.usda.gov/event/listening-session-organic-livestock-and-poultry-standards.

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