USDA sells out organics
Bruce Friedrich, Special to The Courier-Journal
When you think about an organic farm that raises animals, what do you picture?
I'll bet you think about animals who are allowed to root in the soil and feel sun on their backs. I'll bet, more generally, that you assume the animals are treated fairly well, from birth to death.
But if that's how you think about organic, you're mistaken, because good animal welfare is not a requirement of USDA's organic standards, which certify as "USDA organic" factory farms with tens of thousands of chickens crammed into massive sheds. These birds have no access to soil and extremely limited outdoor access.
And as the National Organic Standards Board wraps up its meetings in Louisville this week, they won't be talking about farm animal welfare during their three full days of meetings. It appears that they have given up in the face of USDA's unwillingness to follow their recommendations.
That's too bad, because Americans care about farm animal welfare — fully 95 percent of Americans say that it matters to them how farm animals are treated. I'll bet that percentage is even higher among organic consumers.
The concern about farm animal welfare makes sense: Farm animals feel pain just like we do. And scientists report that chickens and pigs are more cognitively and behaviorally complex than dogs or cats. So barren conditions affect chickens and pigs just like such conditions would affect our pets.
Unfortunately, standard anti-cruelty laws exempt practices that are common on modern farms; that means that cramming pigs and chickens into tiny crates where they cannot even turn around is both the norm and legal. To ensure that they only support better animal welfare, consumers should be able to count on the organic label. But if they are, they're being deceived.
Since 2002, the Organic Standards Board has made recommendations on poultry outdoor access; animal transport and slaughter; and animal welfare and stocking densities. The USDA has ignored all of it, much to the Organic Standards Board's annoyance.
The Board stated unanimously that lack of regulation has "restricted the welfare of animals to a considerable degree" and noted that its recommendations were just a "first step" that would "not provide for a comprehensive review in favor of animal welfare." But USDA won't even take this first step.
It will come as a shock to most organic consumers that there are not already legal requirements for organic where basic animal welfare issues are considered. Indeed, the USDA was charged by Congress with developing standards, yet it announced without meaningful explanation that it will make no progress on any of it.
USDA's announcement was brief, and it cited only an "economic impact analysis" done by a third-party consulting firm and "other urgent priorities."
I don't know what the "other urgent priorities" are and USDA didn't say, but the economic report considers only the poultry guidelines, which have been sitting on a shelf for 12 years, and indicates that implementing the board's recommendations would involve a significant cost for only the five "organic" farms (not five percent — five farms) that are cramming more than 100,000 hens into their barns.
These five so-called organic mega-farms represent one percent of organic egg farms but 16 percent of organic egg production, and they would have to allow access to soil and sunlight and reduce stocking densities. In other words, they would have to do what organic consumers expect.
Instead, USDA is allowing the worst producers to stamp "organic" on their products and is thereby encouraging hundreds of organic farmers that are already in compliance with the proposed regulations to treat animals worse, in order to compete with the few massive farms that provide the worst animal welfare.
USDA is also telling organic farmers and consumers that it doesn't care about animal space allowances, bedding and environmental concerns, environmental enrichment, pain relief for mutilations — or the enforcement of any of it.
Something stinks in the organic hen house, it's the hen house regulators, and USDA's Organic Standards Board should be talking about it and demanding change.
Bruce Friedrich is director of advocacy and policy for Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization, farmsanctuary.org
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