USDA Secretary Faces Lingering Farm Animal Welfare Issues

Thomas Vilsack has returned as secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, a post he held previously during the Obama administration. Vilsack, a former Iowa governor, spent the past four years lobbying for the US dairy industry.

photo by kamisoka
photo by kamisoka

Vilsack now has the opportunity to correct course on a number of actions taken by the Trump administration that were detrimental to animal welfare. With respect to the treatment of farm animals, one of the more glaring examples was that administration’s withdrawal of a regulation establishing welfare standards for animals raised under the USDA’s Certified Organic program. In a meeting with President Biden’s transition team in late 2020, AWI urged the new administration to prioritize reinstatement of the organic rule. 

Another pending issue is the speed at which chickens and pigs are slaughtered at federally inspected processing plants. The USDA under Trump proposed allowing poultry slaughterhouses to operate at faster speeds, which would have jeopardized the welfare of both animals and plant workers. The department withdrew the proposal, but granted dozens of waivers to individual plants allowing them to increase line speeds. The department must now decide how to handle these waivers.

The previous administration also published a proposed framework for regulating the genetic engineering of farm animals under the USDA. The proposal (recently reopened for additional comments) was opposed by the US Food and Drug Administration, which has historically overseen the genetic engineering process for animals. In commenting on the proposal, AWI urged the new administration to keep oversight of the process under the FDA, as moving it to the USDA could create a bias that would be detrimental to animal welfare. 

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