For years, the USDA had been developing organic requirements guaranteeing animals minimums of space, light and access to the outside. Many consumers expect that products bearing the “USDA Organic” label come from a farm with higher animal welfare standards.
But with the new administration, the USDA has changed tack, arguing that the 1990 law creating the “USDA Organic” label does not allow “broadly prescriptive, stand-alone animal welfare regulations.” In effect, the new approach suggests that “organic” farmers need not treat their animals any better than conventional ones do.
This decision “is going to be destructive to the whole organic field,” said Jesse Laflamme, co-owner and chief executive at Pete and Gerry's Organics, an egg company that requires farmers to meet higher standards. “What's so upsetting is that there is such a gap between what organic consumers expect and what these factory farms are producing.”
The immediate reason for the USDA's shift on animal welfare was a proposed rule, more than seven years in gestation, that would have required “organic” egg farms to give hens at least a square foot of space inside as well as access to the outdoors. The rule would have prohibited the large-scale “organic” egg farms that The Washington Post wrote about in July, in which 180,000 birds were kept in a barn, at a density of three per square foot of floor space, and never allowed to set foot outside.
Consumers pay more for organic eggs, and they expect that those eggs are produced more humanely than conventional eggs. According to a March survey by Consumer Reports, more than 80 percent of consumers who regularly buy organic products say it is important that organic eggs come from chickens that are allowed outside.
But the USDA withdrew the proposed rule for poultry, arguing that it could discourage the development of new practices within organic farming.
In a statement, USDA officials said they were concerned that the proposed rule “may hamper market-driven innovation and evolution and impose unnecessary regulatory burdens.”
The decision to remove the ruling drew immediate backlash from organic farmers, animal rights advocates, the Organic Trade Association and consumer groups.
The proposed rule had drawn 47,000 comments, and of those only 28 supported withdrawing the rule, according to the OTA.
Advocates for the rule blamed the outsize influence of large “factory farms” for the USDA's decision to withdraw it. Those farms, they argue, use the “USDA Organic” label to fetch higher prices for their products, without conforming to consumer expectations for organic practices.
“The current administration is doing a tremendous service for the conventional agribusiness interests that has invested in giant livestock factories,” said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, which has long sought stricter standards and stricter enforcement from the USDA. The administration “is throwing out 25 years of precedent in terms of developing organic regulations and enforcing them.”
Kastel and others accused those large nominally “USDA Organic” farms of fooling consumers regarding animal welfare at their facilities.
“They are trying to trick the public and sell their products at a premium under a deficient organic label,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. “They want the profit that comes from the halo effect of the organic label, but they don't want to adhere to common-sense animal welfare standards. I don't think consumers think that organically raised animals are living in a giant confinement shed.”