Animals Raised for Organic Meat Will Soon Have a Better Quality of Life

The USDA is finally adding new animal welfare standards to its certification program for livestock.
Healthy Jersey cows are brought back from the field to the farm. (Photo: Astrid Riecken/'The Washington Post' via Getty Images)
Apr 8, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

When it comes to animal agriculture, USDA organic standards have always focused more on what goes into the meat consumers eat than how the animals lived their lives. The main requirements disallow routine antibiotics or growth hormones and demand certified organic feed. For organic poultry, the main animal welfare provision was that birds have “outdoor access”—the exact interpretation of which has been somewhat unclear. (Cattle, on the other hand, require access to actual pasture.)

But consumers and organic representatives seem to want more differentiation between organic and conventional agriculture. Back in 2011, the National Organic Standards Board noted that “consumers are demanding that livestock be treated with respect.” It listed a number of recommendations that would allow organic to “continue to be the gold standard indicating the most nutritious food produced in the safest and most humane manner.” Now the recommendations are finally coming to pass.

On Thursday, the USDA proposed new guidelines for organic meat and poultry production that would provide a higher standard of animal welfare. Some of these changes include stronger limits on handling and transport, strengthening requirements that animals have access to the outdoors, and stopping common practices such as tail docking or debeaking.

Animal welfare advocates are calling the proposed changes a step in the right direction. “Consumers have an expectation that there are high animal welfare standards associated with organic,” said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. “These proposed rules will help more closely align the organic rules with consumer expectations.”

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Before the changes are finalized, there will be a 60-day public comment period. Except for the poultry space requirements, the USDA will allow one year for producers to make changes. Since redesigning poultry facilities is a larger undertaking, the USDA will grant growers up to five years to complete the task.

Overhauling the organic standards has a price—both for producers and for consumers. Shapiro explained that it’s likely to reduce the number of animals produced organically. According to the USDA, the higher standards could increase production costs by $9.5 million to $24.1 million every year. These are costs that will undoubtedly be passed on to the consumer.

But the differentiation between conventional and organic meat production has been a long time coming—so much so that consumers have believed it existed all along.

Certified organic food has become increasingly common and relatively cheap—and it’s making some people a lot of money. Between 2004 and 2014, sales grew from $11 billion to more than $39 billion. As organics have become a bigger business—2000 was the first year there were more organic foods sold in supermarkets than in natural food stores—the people behind it have shifted.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a food standards body of the Food and Agriculture Organization, defined organic as “a holistic production management system which promotes and enhances agro-ecosystem health, including biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity.” The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements called it “an agricultural system that promotes environmentally, socially, and economically sound production of food, fiber, timber, etc.”

This sounds a lot more idealistic than organic farming in the United States under the USDA certified organic program. Though many independent organic producers are out there, a number of large companies commonly seen in the supermarket are owned by corporations that also control a large share of conventional food. Earthbound Farms, the largest producer of organic salads in the U.S., is owned by WhiteWave Foods—a former subsidiary of Dean Foods. Coleman Natural Foods, an organic meat producer, is owned by Perdue. The largest retailer of organic food is Costco, and the second largest is Walmart.

That makes the USDA guidelines more important than ever. With more large organics operations (as well as their corporate owners) taking part in the business, few are willing to go above and beyond the guidelines, and many stick to the lowest level that will still grant them that “USDA Organic” label. According to a USDA survey, only 36 percent of egg operations provide the two feet per bird of outdoor space that will be required under proposed regulations.

Another perfect example of the accurate-in-law, inaccurate-in-spirit approach to organics is the “porches” that have been allowed to count as “outdoor access” for poultry under the current interpretation of the guidelines.

The screened-in areas look a bit like concrete verandas running alongside indoor broiler housing. Mark Kastel, codirector of the Cornucopia Institute, called them “the most effective and cost-efficient way to ensure compliance with the rule” in 2013. “Why would farm operators invest the extra labor and expense to meet the FDA requirements, and put their birds outside, when they can create a token structure, attached to their main building, and continue to confine their animals?”

The new rules would abolish the use of porches. Not only would outdoor areas have to be covered with 50 percent soil, but producers would be required to entice birds to go outside and use the space through training and better door placement. In essence, “The chickens prefer to stay indoors” may no longer be an excuse. Now access is all that’s required—and the birds often do not take advantage of it. Under the new guidelines, the USDA is leaving little to farmers’ imagination.

While some will undoubtedly cry that the new rules are unfair or burdensome, farmers who don’t wish to comply have the option of moving back to conventional agriculture, where there are still few to no rules regarding animal welfare. The certification is not only government regulated but requires a premium price, so it is more than fair that the reality of what’s required should match consumer expectations.