USDA Proposes Organic Animal Welfare Standards

Since the national organic regulations went into effect in 2001, AWI has called on the US Department of Agriculture and the National Organic Standards Board to establish animal welfare requirements for producers that are certified organic via the National Organic Program. In April, the USDA finally acted, announcing a proposed rule that would make the program better for animals and more consistent with consumer expectations.

Such a rule is badly needed. Since no substantive standards currently exist for the raising of animals organically, the level of animal care provided by organic producers varies greatly. Some producers raise animals on pasture with high welfare, while others raise animals in a manner similar to conventional, intensive agriculture. Some animals raised organically, for example, never even see the outdoors.

The proposed changes to the organic regulations would establish substantive on-farm transport and slaughter standards for organic production. For the first time, the regulations would have specific indoor and outdoor space and enrichment requirements for birds. They would also prohibit certain physical alterations, such as de-beaking of birds and tail docking of cattle. Producers would be required to provide group housing for pigs in most circumstances and for dairy calves after they are weaned.

A few large egg producers—who do not meet the new standards—are trying to derail the rule. To date, these efforts have been unsuccessful because of overwhelming support from animal welfare organizations, organic farmers, consumers, and retailers for higher animal welfare standards.

The proposal is not perfect. Several improvements would better ensure a consistent higher welfare standard among organic producers. For instance, the rule should mandate pain relief for those physical alterations that are still permitted, minimum outdoor space requirements for pigs, and natural light conditions for chickens raised for meat. Nevertheless, as written, the proposal represents a clear breakthrough—the first comprehensive federal animal welfare standards for the raising of farm animals in the United States.