Donate
JOIN
Protecting Our Food, Farms & Environment
toggle menu
Campaigns
Trump Watch
Hawai'i CFS
CFS Hollywood
Join the Food Movement!

Senate Misses the Mark on the Organic Animal Welfare Rule

August 5th, 2016
By Cameron Harsh, Senior Manager for Organic and Animal Policy
Center for Food Safety

How a small group of senators kowtow to corporate egg interests

Consumers of organic animal products expect livestock farmers to provide living conditions that promote the welfare of their animals. They expect that animals have access to the outdoors, space to move around and lie down comfortably, and the freedom to exhibit their natural behaviors. For most organic producers, this has always been the case. However, the absence of a formal standard for organic animal welfare has allowed some in the industry to get away with subpar conditions.

This is set to change. In April, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) finally proposed a rule that has been 14 years in the making. While not perfect, it is a step towards ensuring that all certified organic animal products reflect a consistent level of animal welfare. CFS and many other consumer, environmental and farmer organizations provided substantial comments on how to improve the rule in its final version. Ultimately, when finalized, the rule will establish the baseline practices and principles for the health, living conditions and treatment of animals in certified organic operations.

This is great news, but sadly, a small group of senators are trying to stall the rule. In fact, last week, 13 senators sent a letter requesting that USDA provide additional analysis of the rule’s impacts before moving forward. Some of the same senators had attempted another stalling tactic in May.

The letter claims the agency has left too many unanswered questions about the rule’s impacts on organic producers, consumers, animal health and food safety. But, the key points mainly parrot the concerns of a few very large, Big-Food-friendly organic operators, who hope to keep their organic certification without complying with stronger welfare requirements.

1. Impacts on Producers

Senate concern: USDA failed to estimate costs of modifying or building structures to comply with new space requirements, and only factored in costs of purchasing additional land.

Actual situation: In its cost analysis, USDA did assume that “affected producers will make operational changes to comply with the proposed rule and continue organic egg and poultry production.”[i] USDA also stated clearly that “most organic egg producers could comply with the proposed indoor stocking rates with minor or no changes to their current operation”[ii] and that 100% of organic broiler operations surveyed already comply with the recommended indoor spacing requirements.[iii] The only significant change certain producers would need to undertake would be to accommodate new outdoor spacing requirements. Thus, purchasing additional land to provide sufficient space per bird outdoors would be the cost of compliance or, secondarily, reducing flock size. Even still, “many organic poultry producers currently provide [the recommended] outdoor stocking density of 2.25 pounds/ft2 for layers.”[iv] 

Senate concern: USDA did not evaluate secondary impacts on organic grain producers should some organic poultry producers leave the organic market and no longer need organic grain for feed.  

Actual situation: As USDA notes, the exit of some producers would create “unmet consumer demand for organic eggs [that] would be an incentive for operations to enter organic egg production and for existing organic operations to expand.”[v] These newly certified and expanding operations would continue to be a market for organic grain producers. Further, organic grain is in high demand and other industries rely on organic grain inputs as well. A producer’s ability to market his or her grain is not dependent on the organic chicken industry.

2. Impacts on Consumers

Senate concern: USDA said it is possible that “90 percent of [organic egg] producers leave the market” as a result of the rule, but did not discuss the impact on organic egg prices.

Actual situation: USDA did not state that 90% of egg producers could leave the organic market. Rather, USDA intentionally overestimated an extreme scenario in which 90% of aviary egg producers switched to cage-free. This actually represents less than half (45%) of all organic egg producers and a similar percentage (43%) of total organic laying hens.[vi] Not only is this fear of extreme price impacts based on an exaggeration of an already extreme scenario, but it ignores a point already mentioned: other small and mid-size poultry producers that can comply with the welfare requirements will become certified or expand their organic operations to meet the demand left by the exit of larger producers. As such, this rule actually serves to incentivize an organic poultry industry made up of a diverse range of production scales.

Senate concern: USDA did not effectively assess the impact of price changes on consumer behavior.

Actual situation: USDA reviewed substantial research on consumer “willingness to pay,” an often used tool in economic analyses, demonstrating that consumers are willing to pay more for eggs from high welfare systems. The price of free range eggs is 87.5% higher than conventional eggs, yet consumers continue to demand these products because they value animal welfare. Research has also shown that, in the U.S., egg consumption is actually relatively unresponsive to price changes. An increase in the price of eggs generally by 40%, for example, results in only minor reductions in consumption.[vii]

3. Impact on Animal Health and Food Safety

Senate concern: Allowing birds outside exposes them to disease, particularly avian flu. Keeping birds indoors during a disease outbreak is “reactive” and does not protect bird safety.

Actual situation: Avian flu is a significant concern that all poultry producers should take seriously. However, research shows that the flu viruses generally carried by wild birds are mostly harmless to poultry, referred to as low pathogenicity avian influence (LPAI).[viii] LPAI strains may mutate to the deadly highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI), but that occurs almost exclusively in crowded indoor conditions.[ix] Further, the virus transmits through feces and does not easily survive when exposed to sunlight or drying.[x] Lower stocking densities and providing outdoor access are a part of the solution.

Senate concern: Why does USDA want to implement a rule that “will result in increased mortality?” How can standards that increase mortality be “preferable from an animal welfare standpoint?”

Actual situation: USDA acknowledges that minor increases in animal mortality are possible due to new outdoor access requirements, but explicitly states that, “Many organic producers already provide outdoor access that would comply with this proposed rule and would not see changes in mortality.”[xi] Further, the proposed rule is based on substantial public input, including from producers, on the practices “that would improve the overall quality of life for birds.”[xii] Regular access to sufficient, enriching outdoor space is one part of a holistic system designed to promote animal welfare. USDA also states that “organic producers will be required to use practices to effectively minimize mortality and correct excessive and preventable loss” in outdoor production environments, such as “predator deterrents (electrified fencing, overhead netting), rotation of land, well-drained soil and selection of breeds that are suited to free range conditions.”[xiii]

The Senate letter is a stalling tactic meant to protect the bottom line of a few large producers at the risk of further delaying a necessary, long-overdue rule that would increase animal welfare. It ignores the analysis already completed by USDA, which as we have previously demonstrated, showed that most organic egg and broiler producers would have no impact or be only marginally impacted. Only extremely large organic egg producers would be impacted, which only 0.5% of organic egg operations are considered large producers by USDA, and they account for roughly 25% of organic production.[xiv]

It is difficult to predict whether the few large egg companies will leave organic production and accept the lower price for cage-free eggs, or accept the costs of providing strong animal welfare conditions to continue selling in the organic market. What we do know, however, is that the majority of the industry already complies, or would require only minor changes to comply, with the higher welfare standards. In the end, it is about ensuring that organic consumers nationwide who see the USDA organic label on eggs and chicken are confident they are buying a consistent product they can trust. The few very large companies must get on board or they can’t market as organic. It’s as simple as that.

 

References:

[i] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21992.
[ii] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21989.
[iii] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21991.
[iv] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21990.
[v] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21997.
[vi] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21997.
[vii] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21988.
[viii] Suarez, D. et al. (2004). Recombination resulting in virulence shift in avian influenza outbreak, Chile. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 10(4): 693-699.
[ix] Schrijver, R.S. & G. Koch (eds.) Avian Influenza: Prevention and Control. Workshop 1: introduction and spread of avian influenza, page 4, available at: http://library.wur.nl/ojs/index.php/frontis/article/view/1033/604; Greger, M. (2006). Bird flu: a virus of our own hatching. Lantern Books, page 214; Peris, J.S., de Jong, M.D. & Y. Guan. (2007). Avian influenza Virus (H5N1): a threat to human health. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 20(2): 243-267.
[x] Sutton, D. et al. (2013). Inactivation of the infectivity of two highly pathogenic avian influenza viruses and a virulent Newcastle disease virus by ultraviolet radiation. Avian Pathology, 42(6): 566-568; Zou, S. et al. (2013). Inactivation of the novel avian influenza A (H7N9) virus under physical conditions or chemical agents treatment. Virology Journal, 10: 289; Shortridge, K.F. et al. (1998). Characterization of avian H5N1 influenza viruses from poultry in Hong Kong. Virology, 252: 331-342.
[xi] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21991.
[xii] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21991, emphasis added.
[xiii] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 21991.
[xiv] Federal Register Vol. 81 No. 71 (Wednesday, April 13, 2016), 21956-22009. National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, at 22000.

Related News