As the final touches on President Donald Trump’s inauguration were put in place, something else was happening in Washington DC that got swept up in America’s political tsunami. On January 19th, the USDA announced important amendments to its animal welfare standards for organic livestock and poultry.
These changes to the existing regulations are intended to clarify the practices around handling and slaughtering animals that carry the USDA organic label. If adopted, they would have a meaningful impact on the lives of farm animals, an of course on the companies and farmers selling organic meat and eggs.
Recently, however, the Trump Administration issued a new ‘2 for 1’ executive order, stating that for every new regulation, two existing regulations need to be eliminated. This adds additional complexity to how these new standards will be interpreted by the USDA. Since the new standards were published with a 60-day effective rate, it calls into question whether the 2 for 1 rule will apply. There is even a chance the effective rate will be pushed out to a later date.
Even without the executive order, there is room for uncertainty. There has been vocal opposition to the changes from organisations like the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) and various egg producers working under the organic label, who view these new standards as an overreach by the USDA. Critics like these believe that the USDA doesn’t have the authority to oversee animal welfare standards in the food industry. Even ‘big food’ companies have chimed in, fearful that any progress on animal welfare could leach onto their business’, thus increasing costs and scrutiny from consumers.
‘At its core, these new standards are more of a consumer-driven issue than an animal-welfare issue, as it makes it easier for the consumer to get an outcome they’re expecting and create consistent standards they can trust.’ – Nate Lewis, Farm Policy Director at the OTA.
The public is largely in favour of the USDA’s proposed changes. Most consumers who buy organic assume the animals were pasture raised and have plentiful access to the outdoors. In reality, many of these animals lead lives quite similar to those raised in factory farms (mutilation, cramped living spaces, etc). This creates an uneven playing field for farmers holding higher standards, as they incur higher costs to acquire more land, larger barns, and so on.
‘The new rule means that the organic label will be much more in line with consumer expectations,” says Charlotte Vallaeys, Senior Policy Analyst at Consumer Reports. “A vast majority of American shoppers say that they care about providing better living conditions for farm animals, and more than two-thirds of consumers of all political stripes think that animals raised on organic farms should be able to go outdoors. Outdoor access has always been a requirement for organic farms, but with the new rule, it will no longer be possible for factory farms to claim that their tiny concrete porches qualify as the outdoors.’
Most companies operating under the USDA organic logo are also in favour of these new standards. Perdue Farms, the largest broiler chicken producer in America, supports the new standards as they plan to expand their organic business in the coming years. Pete & Gerry’s, the largest organic egg producer in the US, is already in compliance with the new rules.
The new regulations provide for a five-year rollout, giving farms enough time to adapt to these new changes. The average life span of a poultry barn is twelve years (for tax depreciation) and existing poultry barns average seven years old, so five years respects the farmers’ investments.
‘The value of the organic label is only as strong as the standards that underpin it,” says Elanor Starmer, administrator, who ought to know. Her office at the USDA oversaw the first big change to organic labeling rules since 2002. “It ensures that everyone competes on a level field and all producers are playing by the same rulebook.’
The USDA estimates the costs to the industry of coming into compliance are $28.7 to $31 million, while annualised benefits are $16.3 to $49.5 million(AMS). Most of this will take effect in March 2018: poultry and egg producers will have until 2020 to build new barns to meet the space requirement or add land for outdoor grazing. The new rules also bar some conventional farming practices like clipping hens’ beaks and pigs’ tails to make those animals easier to handle (although it does allow these practices to continue in some circumstances). Organic farmers will continue to be barred from administering antibiotics to their livestock.
The USDA refused to intervene in the choice of breeds, which is especially unfortunate for broiler chickens. Currently, many industrial producers choose breeds that quickly develop enormous breasts resulting in leg fractures, inability to stand, and early mortality.
We will learn a lot more about the fate of these new standards in the coming weeks. The USDA’s new chief will likely be confirmed soon, and greater clarity about the new administration’s stance will emerge. For now, producers and consumers remain in limbo along with future generations of chickens and cows the new rules aim to protect.
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