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The New Organic Animal Welfare Standards Provide More Clarity but May Be a Serious Step Backwards

(Do these organic birds have true “access to the outdoors” and are they able to express their natural behaviors on vegetation? Images courtesy of OrganicEye.)

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Contrary to what one might believe, making organic rules less ambiguous — and more clear — may not lead to a better outcome for both organic consumers and the integrity of the organic seal.

Such is the reality we are now dealing with when it comes to organic animal welfare standards; more specifically, the conditions in which chickens and hens are raised.

After nearly two decades of lobbying by the industry to implement the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule, the Trump administration withdrew these rules in 2018. Last month, the Biden administration reversed course and announced that it would reinstate them, which drew loud applause from various groups in the organic sector.

As the rules currently read, birds must have access to the outdoors, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean drinking water, shade and direct sunlight — suitable for the animal’s stage of life, climate and environment. They need to be able to express their natural behaviors, which include exercise, roosting, scratching and dustbathing. Indoor temporary confinement is allowed during certain parts of their life and when necessary to keep them safe from predators and inclement weather.

Yet, with no specified definitions about what exactly constitutes “outdoors” or the minimum space the birds must have, bad actors have taken advantage of the system by operating organic egg and chicken farms that are not materially different than some conventional, factory farm operations. Even worse is that numerous organic certifiers have signed off on these operations.

Despite the fact the precise standards have not been spelled out by the USDA until this point, all it takes is a degree of intellectual honesty from certifiers to surmise whether an operation is in compliance with the spirit and intent of organic rules. The most egregious example of not abiding by this is the allowance of covered porches, with concrete floors and screens on the walls, to be considered “outdoor space” for the birds.

Given the disparity between what some organic certifiers will allow and what others will not, the industry has been clamoring for a clear and defined set of rules. This is not an unreasonable ask and would seem to eliminate any gray areas that some certifiers and farms have been able to hide behind.

However, not everyone believes that the proposed rules, even if they remove a great deal of ambiguity, are a step forward.

“Right now, what these massive ‘organic’ egg and chicken operators are doing is illegal,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of OrganicEye. “If OLPP passes, as currently proposed, it will codify these illegal practices, and these factory chicken and egg facilities will continue to operate, with just some very minor cosmetic changes. Organic consumers will be the ones who are deceived, and the industry should be demanding something much more stringent and healthier for the birds.”

“The current proposed rule demonstrates the power of chemical agriculture over the organic sector,” added Linley Dixon, co-director of the Real Organic Project.

In the proposed rules for outdoor space:

– The screens on the porch walls have been eliminated but concrete floors and roofs are still allowed. Roofs can be problematic for birds because a clear view of the sky alerts them to possible predators and makes them feel more safe.
– 50% of the outdoor space can be paved over with concrete or gravel, despite the fact that birds need to be on pasture or soil to exhibit their natural behaviors.
– Once outside, hens and chickens will have 1-2 square feet (depending on the weight of the birds) to roam around. In Europe, they are required to have 43 square feet.

“With these new rules, there will be a path leading to a 40-acre field, which the birds may have to exit through a series of small doors, traverse a semi-enclosed porch with a roof, step over a concrete curb and then walk over a paved or graveled surface before reaching any semblance of a natural environment. No chickens will ever go out there, but in theory, they will have ‘access to pasture,’” said Mark Kastel.

“We have some very serious concerns with this rule, including failure to define ‘access’ and poor description of outdoor space, among many other issues,” put forth Jay Feldman, executive director of Beyond Pesticides. “We’ll be advocating that they all get corrected and that any exception should be to benefit animals, not to make more money,”

For those who are unsure whether this OLPP rule is a step in the right direction or is merely a continuance of the business-as-usual pandering to big corporate interests, one could look at a proposed implementation time to gauge the USDA’s sincerity to create meaningful change.

Layer operations certified at the time of the rule’s effective date will have 15 years to comply with the rule’s outdoor space requirements concerning stocking density, exit doors, soil and vegetation.


Update: The USDA extended the deadline to submit comments on these proposed rules to November 1o, 2022, and here are OrganicEye’s comments to the USDA.

(At an organic farm in Iowa, chickens are truly enjoying themselves on healthy grass outside of a layer house, with approximately 5,000 birds.)

With gratitude,

Max Goldberg, Founder

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