By Cameron Harsh, Center for Food Safety
People choose organic foods because they believe that they were produced with integrity by farmers committed to strong standards of care for the planet and all its inhabitants. They trust that the organic seal has meaning, and that it guarantees consistency across all products and brands. However, USDA has delayed, and may possibly scrap hard-fought organic animal welfare gains.
For certified organic meat and dairy, consumers believe that the animals spend a significant amount of time outside and are treated humanely. According to a recent survey by Consumers Union, 6 out of 10 U.S. consumers, regardless of whether they purchase organic foods, believe that it is very or extremely important that organic animals come from farms with high welfare practices. For consumers that buy organic regularly, nearly 9 out of 10 feel this way.
That is why CFS and thousands of farmers, consumers, scientists, advocates, and environmentalists, have spent more than a decade creating new rules that improve upon the current standards for organic animal production. After a rigorous, participatory process, the rule finally crossed the finish line in January 2017. The much-needed update addresses certain ambiguities in the existing regulations to ensure that animals on all organic farms in the U.S. are provided the same basic level of welfare. But now, USDA Secretary Perdue and President Trump are impeding this progress and threatening to completely pull the rule.
What does the rule do?
The majority of the rule is non-controversial. It establishes greater clarity regarding the practices, conditions, and treatment that are required or prohibited for livestock producers to qualify for organic status. The rule clarifies that animal husbandry is about more than simply providing 100% organic feed and eliminating the use of growth promoting drugs or other unapproved synthetics.
Several inhumane physical alterations, like tail docking, tooth clipping, and beak trimming, are prohibited or severely restricted. New language requires that animals have access to suitable outdoor space and an appropriate indoor environment. The rule also maintains a great deal of flexibility, allowing farmers to tailor their operations based on site-specific conditions.
In the case of poultry, the rule sets out specific minimum space requirements for indoor and outdoor areas. USDA has clearly stated that all organic chicken meat producers comply with the new rule already and “most organic egg producers could comply with the proposed indoor [space requirements] with minor or no changes to their current operation.”12 Similarly, “many organic poultry producers currently provide [the recommended] outdoor”3 space per bird.4 A 2014 survey by Organic Egg Farmers of America confirmed that the majority of organic egg producers representing the majority of organic egg production already adhere to the practices and standards set forth in the new rule.5
Why is it being stalled?
A few members of Congress started targeting the rule last year, under pressure from a small group of very large egg producers. Unlike the majority of producers, this small group of large producers does not provide appropriate outdoor space for their hens and will not meet the new standards. This handful of large producers has considerable lobbying power that has pushed members of Congress in their states to oppose the rule, and unfortunately, USDA has listened.
What can we do?
Although the rule was finalized in January 2017, USDA has twice delayed its effective date. The rule is now set to go into effect November 14, but its fate is uncertain. On the same day that USDA delayed the rule for a second time, the Agency issued another proposed rule inviting public comment on how they should move forward. The Agency is now considering suspending the rule indefinitely or even withdrawing it entirely. We cannot let this happen.
It is critical to have our voices heard and to continue showing USDA that the majority of consumers and farmers support the rule. Comments can be submitted until 11:59pm EST on Friday, June 9th. You can see CFS’s action alert for some ideas of key talking points to include in your statement, and to submit your comment directly to the docket.
Organic meat and dairy production is good for business, good for local communities, good for the environment, and mostly, good for our health. Organic must continue to grow and be a strong label that consumers can trust. To further delay, suspend, or withdraw the new regulations puts the entire organic industry in jeopardy.