Food animals deserve high welfare standards, and the USDA is proposing to enact them
When most people hear the term ‘organic’ in the context of food, they immediately think high quality, ethically produced, environmentally beneficial, and sustainably sourced. That’s because organic is a cut above. The organic program’s baseline standards are intended to ensure that consumers are getting exactly what they want—healthy, humane food—without the harmful additives, pesticides, and other chemicals present in most of America’s food today. Despite the organic program’s clear mandate for high animal welfare, the standards that would guarantee that organic food is “humane” have been lagging behind.
But this week there is a reason to be optimistic about the direction organic food animal production in the U.S. – yesterday the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a proposed rule that would strengthen standards of health and quality of life for food animals that are designated as certified organic. This is a hugely important step for animal welfare, the organic label and for conscientious consumers.
There are many reasons to care about animal welfare – ethics tell us that we have a responsibility to animals raised for food to ensure that they are free from unnecessary pain and suffering. Science and research tells us that food animal health and well-being is directly related to human health and well-being. Studies demonstrate that providing an appropriate living space and diet for animals yields meat and dairy products that provide greater health benefits to consumers.
Center for Food Safety has been advocating for higher animal welfare standards for many years. In 2013, CFS conducted a survey to determine what factors influence organic consumers’ purchasing decisions for organic poultry products. Of the 17,396 people surveyed who purchase organic eggs, for example, more than 70% listed humane and natural conditions, including outdoor space and ability to engage in natural behaviors, as among the top five reasons they choose organic. In other words, U.S. consumers expect that organic meat and animal products are produced with a higher standard of animal welfare protections than non-certified organic products, and there must be rules in place that ensure this is the case.
The USDA’s proposal would move the dial on organic food animal production by requiring producers to implement several practices and strategies to promote high welfare, including the prohibition of painful and unethical practices like de-beaking of poultry, tail docking of pigs and cattle, and face branding of cattle. It would also require producers to not only provide outdoor space, but encourage animals to utilize the outdoor area through appropriate system designs. And while these are great advancements, there will still be work to be done. For instance, the rule fails to mandate that outdoor spaces must include at least 50% vegetative cover, and the requirements for outdoor stocking density for poultry (or, the number of birds in one place) allow for more crowded conditions than many private welfare labels.
The USDA will be taking public comments on the proposed rule 60 days after its publication, and you can reiterate to the agency that if the organic standard is going to meet expectations and be an effective measure of higher quality food and animal welfare, it must include all necessary safeguards to ensure animals are well-fed, health, have access to the outdoors, are raised in an environment that allows them to engage in natural behaviors and are humanely slaughtered.