Dueling Corporate Interests Await Pending Updates to Organic Animal Welfare Standards

The Cornucopia Institute

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) recommendation to the Department of Agriculture, now pending, calls for organically raised chickens to have access to approximately 2 ft² per bird outdoors. For comparison, European Union organic regulations require 43 ft².

One of the pend­ing reg­u­la­tions released in the final days of the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, and put on hold by the Trump White House, was an already con­tro­ver­sial rule that pits legit­i­mate fam­i­ly-scale organ­ic farm­ers against the oper­a­tors of fac­to­ry farms” — indus­tri­al-scale oper­a­tions accused of vio­lat­ing exist­ing organ­ic ani­mal wel­fare stan­dards. A new­ly released analy­sis by The Cor­nu­copia Insti­tute, an organ­ic indus­try watch­dog, explains what is at stake and why eco­nom­i­cal­ly pow­er­ful forces in organ­ics are squawk­ing over new space require­ments pro­posed for chickens.

The Organ­ic Live­stock and Poul­try Prac­tices Rule was pub­lished in the Fed­er­al Reg­is­ter on Jan. 19, and amends cur­rent organ­ic live­stock and poul­try pro­duc­tion require­ments. The new rule adds pro­vi­sions for live­stock han­dling, avian liv­ing con­di­tions, trans­port for slaugh­ter and expands and clar­i­fies exist­ing require­ments cov­er­ing live­stock care and pro­duc­tion prac­tices. It includes man­dates for the care of cat­tle, hogs, and poultry.

The new rule­mak­ing was in response to a more than decade-long con­tro­ver­sy about con­cen­trat­ed ani­mal feed­ing oper­a­tions (CAFOs), or fac­to­ry farms, con­fin­ing as many as two mil­lion lay­ing hens on a sin­gle farm’ with­out the legal­ly man­dat­ed access to the out­doors,” says Mark A. Kas­tel, Senior Farm Pol­i­cy Ana­lyst at The Cor­nu­copia Insti­tute. This rule nei­ther solves the prob­lem nor makes any fac­tion in the indus­try happy.”

To view the Insti­tute’s recent analy­sis, click here.

Weak rec­om­men­da­tions

Farm­ers who pro­duce eggs or raise chick­ens for meat and abide by the require­ments for out­door access, or go even fur­ther and rotate their ani­mals on high qual­i­ty pas­ture, felt betrayed by weak rec­om­men­da­tions to the USDA that came out of the Nation­al Organ­ic Stan­dards Board (NOSB), a con­gres­sion­al­ly man­dat­ed USDA advi­so­ry pan­el. At the time, the rec­om­men­da­tions were shep­herd­ed through by the employ­ee of one of the major organ­ic egg pro­duc­ers, Organ­ic Val­ley. [Note: The chief legal coun­sel for Organ­ic Val­ley is cur­rent­ly board chair of the pow­er­ful indus­try lob­by group, the Organ­ic Trade Association.]

The NOSB rec­om­men­da­tions, which were incor­po­rat­ed into the pend­ing rule, call for approx­i­mate­ly 2 ft² per bird out­doors. In addi­tion, although cages remain banned, mul­ti-lev­el aviary sys­tems” are allowed. These sys­tems are not required to pro­vide more than approx­i­mate­ly 1 ft² per bird indoors. For com­par­i­son, Organ­ic Val­ley requires 5 ft² per bird of out­door access for their farm­ers pro­duc­ing eggs, and Euro­pean Union organ­ic reg­u­la­tions require 43 ft² per bird.

Our analy­sis indi­cates that the inad­e­qua­cy of these rules puts them in direct con­flict with exist­ing reg­u­la­to­ry lan­guage that requires farm­ers to estab­lish and main­tain year-round live­stock liv­ing con­di­tions which accom­mo­date the health and nat­ur­al behav­ior of the ani­mals,” says Marie Bur­cham, a Cor­nu­copia researcher and an attor­ney with train­ing in envi­ron­men­tal and ani­mal law.

For poul­try, to avoid undue stress that can cause aggres­sive behav­ior and injuries to flock mates, birds need ade­quate space to engage in for­ag­ing behav­ior.” This includes scratch­ing and peck­ing at the ground for seeds, inver­te­brates, grass, and weeds. When deprived access to ade­quate, high-qual­i­ty out­door space birds can become aggres­sive, which leads con­fine­ment-based egg pro­duc­ers to trim the ani­mals’ beaks. This prac­tice makes it more dif­fi­cult for birds to for­age, and isn’t need­ed on pas­ture-based farms. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, it’s still viewed as nec­es­sary and allowed under the new reg­u­la­tions,” says Burcham.

The USDA announced last Wednes­day that the new rule would be delayed for 60 days, until May 19. Indus­tri­al egg lob­by groups are hap­py to see this rule tabled. The con­ven­tion­al egg indus­try, which has invest­ed in organ­ic” con­fine­ment egg pro­duc­tion, is call­ing on the USDA to rescind the rule for good. After mak­ing cam­paign con­tri­bu­tions to key mem­bers of Con­gress, and lob­by­ing for the rule’s demise, there is a chance these big-indus­try groups will get their wish. With the exten­sive new require­ments for poul­try, includ­ing lay­ing hens, con­ven­tion­al egg pro­duc­ers who dip their toe into organ­ic‘ agri­cul­ture will find it more cost­ly to oper­ate,” says Burcham.

Doing it the right way no mat­ter what

The con­tro­ver­sy came to a head after the USDA failed to enforce reg­u­la­tions requir­ing all‘ organ­ic live­stock to have access to the out­doors. The agency was allow­ing major egg pro­duc­ers a loop­hole by rec­og­niz­ing small porch­es with con­crete floors and ceil­ings as sat­is­fy­ing the required out­door” space. In most instances, even if a court would accept that an enclosed struc­ture was out­doors,’ these minute porch­es typ­i­cal­ly only hold 1 – 3 per­cent of the birds,” says Kas­tel. Thus, 97 per­cent of the birds are being ille­gal­ly con­fined and the USDA has refused to take action. Their fail­ure to do so is eco­nom­i­cal­ly injur­ing the major­i­ty of law-abid­ing and eth­i­cal organ­ic farmers.”

While the largest con­ven­tion­al egg indus­try play­ers are fight­ing the new rule because it will dis­al­low porch­es, more mod­er­ate-sized oper­a­tors who typ­i­cal­ly keep around 20,000 birds to a build­ing (as well as the Organ­ic Trade Asso­ci­a­tion) are delight­ed and push­ing for imple­men­ta­tion. Two square feet of space, with­out ade­quate doors, and accom­pa­ny­ing reg­u­la­tions that would actu­al­ly encour­age the birds to go out­side, will do noth­ing to change cur­rent indus­try prac­tices that result in the con­fine­ment of the vast major­i­ty of organ­ic chick­ens,” says Bur­cham. The pro­pos­al for 2 ft² out­doors and 11.5 ft² indoors, depend­ing on the build­ing design, will encour­age busi­ness as usu­al for mod­er­ate-sized oper­a­tions while seri­ous­ly dis­rupt­ing their fac­to­ry farm com­peti­tors.” Due to lack of enforce­ment by the USDA, Cor­nu­copia has pro­duced research reports and asso­ci­at­ed brand score­cards, includ­ing one for organ­ic eggs. The score­cards help eaters iden­ti­fy farms and com­pa­nies that are adher­ing to both the spir­it and the let­ter of the law, but many of the iden­ti­fied oper­a­tions go well beyond the regulations. 

Whether this rule is imple­ment­ed or not, we will not be chang­ing our prac­tices at World’s Best Eggs,” says Cameron Mol­berg, an organ­ic egg pro­duc­er from Elgin, Texas who has earned one of the top rat­ings on Cornucopia’s organ­ic egg score­card. World’s Best Eggs rota­tion­al­ly pas­tures 30,000 chick­ens in mul­ti­ple mobile coops that are fre­quent­ly moved to fresh grass. We are already sell­ing a prod­uct that is pro­duced to stan­dards far above what is cur­rent­ly required or pro­posed by the USDA,” says Mol­berg. But if these rules go into effect, and/​or the USDA con­tin­ues to fail to enforce the organ­ic law, the real losers are the con­sumers who are hun­gry for authen­tic­i­ty and a bet­ter egg.”

(“Show­down at the Organ­ic Cor­ral” was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Cor­nu­copia News. An addi­tion­al source of quotes cri­tiquing the pend­ing organ­ic ani­mal hus­bandry rule can be found at Cor​nu​copia​.org. Texas farmer Cameron Mol­berg is a for­mer board mem­ber of the Texas Organ­ic Farm­ers and Gar­den­ers Asso­ci­a­tion and was one of the country’s top rat­ed egg farm­ers on The Cor­nu­copia Institute’s score­card, pri­or to his elec­tion to serve on the nonprofit’s board of direc­tors.)

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The Cor­nu­copia Insti­tute, a Wis­con­sin-based non­prof­it farm pol­i­cy research group, is ded­i­cat­ed to the fight for eco­nom­ic jus­tice for the fam­i­ly-scale farm­ing com­mu­ni­ty. Their Organ­ic Integri­ty Project acts as a cor­po­rate and gov­ern­men­tal watch­dog assur­ing that no com­pro­mis­es to the cred­i­bil­i­ty of organ­ic farm­ing meth­ods and the food it pro­duces are made in the pur­suit of profit.
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