New USDA organic rule does what consumers thought the Organic Standards Act did back in 1990
WASHINGTON D.C.––Sixty million farmed animals may benefit from the Organic Livestock & Poultry Standards final rule previewed on October 25, 2023 by Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
The final rule comes 33 years after the passage of the 1990 Organic Standards Act gave two generations of American consumers false hope that the label “organic’ on an animal product or byproduct might actually mean something pertaining to animal welfare.
Nearly two billion animals suffered from that delay.
Agribusiness & animal welfare orgs agree on something
Lauded Krissa Welshan, livestock editor for the farm trade journal Feedstuffs, “The [new] rule establishes clear, strong and consistent standards for organic livestock and poultry production, levels the playing field for organic livestock farmers, ranchers and businesses, and promotes fairer, more competitive markets for their products, while providing consumers with more transparency about their purchases.”
Normally, if a major voice in agribusiness endorses a federal government action, major voices in animal welfare are howling disappointment, but Animal Wellness Action and the allied Center for a Humane Economy, along with the Humane Society of the U.S., issued similar statements.
“First time in federal law” that specific animal welfare standards are codified
Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy “applauded the U.S. Department of Agriculture” for introducing “a regulatory regimen that for the first time in federal law establishes specific legal standards to assure some level of animal care and welfare for animals used in agricultural production.
The new animal welfare requirements “will apply to animals raised under an ‘organic standards’ regimen,” Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy explained in a joint statement, “assuring consumers that the animals raised on organic farms are not immobilized in cages or crates, subjected to routine mutilations, denied access to pasture for meaningful periods of their lives, or otherwise treated in ways inimical to their well-being,” short, of course, of being transported to slaughter.
“These are the first farm animal welfare rules under federal law, and that is an historic circumstance,” exulted Animal Wellness Action and the Center for a Humane Economy president Wayne Pacelle, who previously pushed for such rules to be introduced by the USDA throughout 10 years as Humane Society of the U.S. director of legislation and 14 years as HSUS president.
“The rule went through 14 years of drafting and review,” recounted Pacelle, “finalized in the waning days of the Barack Obama administration, only to be summarily scrapped by the incoming Donald Trump team.
“Today’s final rule-making,” Pacelle assessed, “a little more than halfway through the current Joe Biden White House, means that the standards being implemented will be difficult for a future administration to unwind in an arbitrary and highly politicized way, as occurred in prior years with multiple administrations.”
What it means to poultry & pigs
What the new USDA organic standards for animal products mean, specifically, the Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy joint statement stipulated, is that “Poultry producers who want to market their products as organic will have to provide more space to birds, allowing them to fully stretch their wings when indoors, as well as mandating outdoor access, natural lighting availability, and more protective air monitoring requirements.
“Organic livestock, including pigs, must now have year-round outdoor access and be able to move and stretch their limbs at all times—in sharp contrast to industrial-style production of pigs, especially the breeding sows kept in two-foot-by-seven-foot gestation crates.
“The rule also contains additional standards for pigs relating to their ability to root and live in group housing,” the Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy joint statement mentioned.
But the Animal Wellness Action and Center for a Humane Economy are unhappy that, “The rule gives existing organic poultry operations, or those that become certified organic within the first year following the rule’s enactment, five years from the effective date to meet the specific requirements related to indoor and outdoor stocking density, outdoor space, and exit area.”
Said Pacelle, “Delaying implementation of some of the poultry standards for five years is unwarranted and, for the producers who already adhere to these standards, unfair and a detriment to their business operations.”
Agreed Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block and Sara Amundson, president of the subsidiary Humane Society Legislative Fund, “While the rule only covers animals raised in the National Organic Program, it will be the first time that producers who participate in the organic program will be required to honor specific fundamental welfare standards.
Clarification, including on antibiotics
“The standards include clarification that gestation and farrowing crates are prohibited in organic pork production,” the first time federal regulation has addressed how pigs are housed from a welfare perspective.
“Addressing a longtime humane concern,” Block and Amundson added, “the rule forbids the sale or slaughter of non-ambulatory animals, and clarifies that producers may not purposefully withhold individual treatment for injured, diseased, or sick animals to preserve their organic status.” This is a reference to the reluctance of some organic farmers to treat animals for infections using prescribed antibiotics, a distinctly different matter from the routine prophylactic use of antibiotics on factory farms to try to prevent the spread of diseases resulting from overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.
Tail-docking, face-branding, & de-beaking
“The rule also bans inherently cruel practices including tail-docking and face-branding, de-beaking (or beak trimming) after 10 days of age, and induced molting (a process using stress and starvation to shed feathers) for chickens, and mulesing of sheep, a painful process that involves slicing the animals’ flesh,” Block and Amundson explained.
Note that debeaking appears to be equally painful to chickens at any age. That debeaking is for the first time regulated at all may represent animal welfare progress of a sort, but only in baby steps.
“To provide these vital protections to animals as soon as possible,” Block and Amundson said, “the USDA elected to implement the rule on a faster-tracked implementation timeline.”
This may be in part, Block and Amundson indicated, because of “litigation initiated by the Humane Society of the United States after the Trump administration withdrew the previous very similar organic standards finalized under the Obama administration.”
Trump screwed animals
Donald Trump, upon election, put former Protect the Harvest executive director Brian Klippenstein in charge of the USDA transition team. Protect the Harvest, explained Block and Amundson at the time, is “an anti-animal-welfare super-Political Acton Committee” founded by oil magnate Forrest Lucas.
Klippenstein, observed the online “inside politics” magazine Politico, was for weeks “the sole [Trump] transition team representative preparing USDA for a new administration.”
In that capacity, wrote Block and Amundson, Klippenstein “worked almost immediately to try to scuttle the pro-farmer, pro-humane rule,” with “an assist from big agricultural and foreign-owned business interests threatened by the notion that ‘organic’ products will be perceived as superior to conventionally produced animal products.
“Specifically,” Block and Amundson said, “the organics rule would force several large poultry producers to raise their animals in a manner that actually meets consumers’ expectations.”
What are those expectations?
Recited Block and Amundson, “A 2017 Consumer Reports survey found that 86% of those who always or often buy organic believe it is highly important that animals used to produce organic food be raised on farms with high welfare standards. The survey also found that 83% of consumers of organic products consider it important that organic eggs come from hens who could go outdoors and enjoy sufficient space to freely move around.”
The Consumer Reports survey followed a two-year series of articles by Washington Post investigative reporter Peter Whoriskey, published at intervals from 2015 through 2017, demonstrating the gap between what consumers believed and what several major “organic” egg producers actually did.
The 2010 rules: announced but not enforced
Many consumers appeared to believe that the original USDA standards for “organic” animal agriculture, introduced in February 2010, were actually in effect.
Those rules, explained Associated Press writer Henry C. Jackson, said that “Organic milk and meat must come from livestock grazing on pasture for at least four months of the year, and that 30% of their feed must come from grazing. The old rules,” from the Organic Standards Act of 1990, “said only that animals must have ‘access to pasture.’”
USDA implementation of the February 2010 rules was delayed by a combination of agribusiness political influence and litigation.
“Organic could mean just about anything”
“Three years ago,” Farm Sanctuary founder Gene Bauer frustratedly observed in September 2013, “the Office of the Inspector General told the USDA that their organic program was poorly managed, badly enforced, and that welfare standards were so vague that ‘organic’ could mean just about anything.
“The USDA promised to do better,” Bauer recalled, “and charged the National Organic Standards Board with making recommendations designed to improve its organic program, including making recommendations for, among other things, precise outdoor access guidance for ruminants, like cows.”
However, Bauer continued, “The USDA recently announced that it will not even adopt the National Organic Standards Board’s existing suggestions regarding outdoor access for poultry, which were created more than 10 years ago.
“‘Organic’ no better than conventional cage-free
“Even more outrageous,” Bauer said, “the USDA declared it won’t adopt any of the animal welfare recommendations suggested by the National Organic Standards Board.
“The USDA appears to have made this decision,” Bauer charged, “in order to protect five massive “organic” egg producers that are raising hundreds of thousands of hens in conditions no better than conventional cage-free production.”
Ten years later, that situation appears at last to be changing. “Organic” labels may finally mean that some poultry, pigs, and cattle are raised in accordance with improved animal welfare standards.
But “organic” labeling will continue to mean little or nothing positive for animals in other respects.
The term “organic” in agriculture chiefly refers to growing crops and produce without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
This meant a lot more in terms of animal and human health sixty-odd years ago, when Rachel Carson in Silent Spring (1962) exposed the long-term effects of broad-spectrum, long-lasting first-generation spray pesticides.
Some animals, especially birds, and humans, are still suffering from the cumulative effects of the intensive use in Rachel Carson’s time of DDT, lead arsenate, methyl mercury, parathion, the original dioxin-laden formulation of 2,4,5-T, and many other farm chemicals.
But while some of the residues of those chemicals remain in soil and water, that chemical generation since passed out of common [and legal] use, replaced by several generations of much more target-specific pesticides that break down to harmlessness much faster and more completely.
“Organic” grass & feed grain
“Organic” meat production requires having a supply of “organic” grass and grain to feed farmed animals, and is basically a second step in the system, wholly dependent on the success of the first step.
Consider the difference between planting a field of corn the modern way vs. the organic way.
A farmer who plants fodder corn the organic way harrows the field and then saturates it with organic pig slurry, pig slurry––organic or otherwise––being the richest readily accessible fertilizer for a corn crop.
Harrowing, however, though admired by organic enthusiasts to the point of the magazine Country Life having originally been called Harrowsmith, is practically a prescription for soil erosion.
Why birds follow a harrow
But that’s not all. Ever wonder why gulls, crows, et al follow a harrow, as soon as the dust settles?
The gulls, crows, and other birds are feasting on a smorgasbord of sliced and diced small animals, everything from worms to bunnies. Anything that is not at least a foot beneath the surface is likely to be either dismembered or merely exposed to sunlight (deadly to worms) and avian predators.
Ironically, harrowing, in aerating the topsoil, tends to kill most of the small animals that help nature to do the job of aeration.
Defended by shotgun
That is only the beginning. The seeding operation is defended against seed-eating birds by shotgun.
From the time the corn begins to grow, the organic farmer defends it further with every weapon he can muster, or that USDA Wildlife Services can muster on the organic farmer’s behalf, knowing that birds, insects, fungi, and other animals are going to cut deeply into productivity that on average is at least 8% less than that of conventional agriculture.
Anything big enough to shoot or trap “buys the farm.”
The conventionally farming neighbor does not harrow. The conventional corn farmer kills off any competing foliage with a broadleaf herbicide that does the job and breaks down under sunlight, then plants by seed-drilling.
The seeds are coated with pesticide, which kills any small animal who finds and tries to eat them, but most small animals who eat corn kernels look for them on top of the ground, not six to eight inches deep. Most of the life of the field is relatively little affected.
Insecticides & fungicides
The field is then sprayed at least once, often several times, with insecticides and fungicides.
Right after the spraying, birds may become intoxicated or even poisoned, flying in front of cars if not killed outright. Some cats or wildlife may die of secondary poisoning from eating poisoned birds, a phenomenon that ANIMALS 24-7 has documented.
But that effect is short-term. It is much less deadly to everything but the bugs and fungi than the continuous effort to kill anything that might munch a leaf or a cob.
After harvest, the conventional corn farmer leaves the ground-fallen remnant cobs for the deer, raccoons, muskrats, and migratory waterfowl.
The organic farmer is back to harrowing.
The story is similar for “organic” versus “conventional” production of other crops, including other grains, fruits, and vegetables––and this is why the ANIMALS 24-7 editors avoid “organic” produce at the supermarket.
Just because a crop is produced with real animal shit, no chemicals added, does not mean it is better for the animals, especially the farmed animals who produce the shit in the first place.