The USDA Is Abandoning Popular New Animal Welfare Rules For Its Organic Program—Here's What It Means

Organic farmers, animal-rights advocates, and consumers all support the rules.

December 27, 2017
organic chicken
Michael Möller / EyeEm/getty

Just last week, the United States Department of Agriculture moved to scrap years-in-the-making changes to the rules governing its organic livestock and poultry program—changes designed to improve animal welfare, and also to assure consumers they can rely on the department’s organic standards.

The USDA oversees the country’s largest and most visible organic certification program. In order for animal products—from eggs and milk and meat—to be labeled with the round “USDA Organic” seal, they have to meet a set of feed, housing, and treatment standards.

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But the credibility of USDA’s organic program has come under fire in recent years.

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Some media reports have claimed large-scale organic producers are gaming the USDA’s standards thanks to lax enforcement. Animals may lack sufficient access to the outdoors or to grazing pastures—both of which are important animal-welfare regulations under the USDA’s organic guidelines.

The reports also point out loopholes that allow some producers to maintain their organic certification while exposing animals to living conditions that seem to violate the intent of USDA’s organic program.

One example: egg-laying organic hens are supposed to have year-round access to the outdoors. But the current USDA rules say a screened-in coop meets that outdoor-access requirement.

Related: Why It's More Important To Be An Ethical Omnivore Than A Vegetarian

“What you have is some new organic operations that look a lot like conventional operations,” says Charles Benbrook, an organic foods and agriculture researcher and visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health. While these operations are technically in compliance with “the letter of the law,” they are not adhering to the “spirit” of the organic program, he explains.

Not only does this hurt consumer confidence in USDA organic, but it disadvantages small-scale farmers and operations that don’t game the system.

Watch one boy explain why he decided to go vegetarian all on his own:

 

Why the new rules are needed

The popularity of organic foods has exploded in recent years. And as organic food production has expanded from “the original set of true believers to more dispassionate business interests,” some amount of cheating has gone on, says Sasha Stashwick, a senior advocate for food and agricultural programs at the National Resources Defense Council.

Benbrook agrees. “A lot of these newer operations transitioned because they saw the opportunity to make more money per bird,” he says.

While the influx of massive producers helps your local Costco or Walmart stock inexpensive “organic” animal products, these products may be a far cry from what consumers expect to receive when they shell out money for organic, Benbrook says.

Related: 3 Science-Backed Reasons Organic Food Is Healthier And Safer

Amid angry calls and lawsuits from animal rights advocates, consumer groups, and the Organic Trade Association—an organization that represents organic farmers—the USDA had approved a set of changes designed to “expand and clarify” its rules to remove a lot of the loopholes, and to ensure its organic standards adhere closer to consumer expectations. These new rules are known as the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP).

The response to the OLPP rules has been overwhelmingly positive. During the last public comment period, only 28 comments out of the roughly 47,000 submitted were against the changes.

“The new rules were needed to eliminate wiggle room,” Benbrook says. “And I want to emphasize that they had been in development for over five years through a very transparent process.”

 

Related: Everything You Need To Know About Raising Backyard Chickens

But, in keeping with the Trump Administration’s push for regulatory rollbacks, several senators worked together to kill the changes. “These are senators from states like Ohio and Michigan and Indiana where a lot of these new large-scale organic operations have been put in,” Benbrook says.

Are the OLPP animal welfare rules dead?

Far from it.

Benbrook says legal wrangling will continue, and he believes the proposed rules will eventually be adopted—though probably not for a few more years. “It will just take more time and cost a lot more money, which is really a shame because there’s already been a huge investment in this process,” he says.

His advice to consumers and concerned citizens: Start by submitting a formal comment in favor of the OLPP rules, and against the move scrap them. Also, call or write your senators and let them know you support the OLPP regulations.

Related: I Tried To Eat All Organic For A Month Without Spending Extra On Food, Here's How It Went

Finally, make a statement with your money by buying from small-scale organic producers—those who set up at farmers’ markets and independent grocery stores—who Benbrook says are less likely to be exploiting loopholes. “It’s always a good idea to support smaller operations,” he says. “Everything in our economy is getting so big and powerful, and as a result less democratic.”