Lynne Curry is a freelance food journalist based eastern Oregon. Find the original post on Civil Eats here.
As Civil Eats has reported in the past, buying certified organic meat doesn't guarantee the animals were treated humanely. And while there's no cure-all for an industry that often prioritizes economy over animal welfare, things are looking up for all animals raised on organic farms in the U.S.
That's because a set of rules called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) won last-minute approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and made it onto the Federal Register to become law. The OLPP enacts comprehensive animal welfare standards covering living conditions (particularly for poultry), healthcare, slaughter, and transport.
The rules are the product of decades-long conversations involving the Organic Trade Association (OTA), animal welfare and consumer groups and they're based on formal recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the 15-member public advisory group to the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA)'s National Organic Program comprised of organic producers, environmentalists, and consumer advocates, among others.
The rules aren't as extensive as some advocates had hoped for, but they are a significant step. "We didn't get all that we wanted. It was adequate given the state of animal welfare in the organic program," says Dena Jones, the farm animal program director at the American Welfare Institute. "You can't go from 0 to 100 miles an hour in five feet."
Some are more optimistic, like John Brunnquell, President, Egg Innovations and Organic Egg Farmers of America. "Our customers support and expect organic farmers to uphold a higher standard of animal treatment. The value and integrity of the organic seal depend on meeting these expectations. By restoring that integrity, these rules will benefit producers who adhere to the true spirit of organic production. We commend USDA and look forward to the implementation of these rules," Brunnquell said in a statement released by the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) on January 12, 2017.
Nevertheless, the enactment and enforcement for OLPP remains uncertain under the next administration.
Outdoor Access is Key
The most contested aspect of OLPP--out of an exhaustive list of amendments for poultry and livestock welfare--is a new, clarified definition for the outdoor access standard. The existing national organic law, first enacted in 2001, requires "year-round access for all animals to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight," and expressly prohibits "total continuous confinement." But it doesn't go into detail about exactly what that means. "For a good segment of organic poultry, there is no outdoor access at all," said Jones. Instead, multi-story aviaries fulfill the letter of organic law with covered porches.
The porches, say Suzanne McMillan, director of the Farm Animal Welfare campaign for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) told Civil Eats in June, are "certainly no reasonable person's definition of outdoor access."
While many organic producers raise animals on pasture in accordance with the spirit of the organic law, others confine animals in housing similar to factory farm conditions. The USDA, in publishing the proposed OLPP rule in April 2016, cited the need to address such inconsistencies in organic practices and align the USDA organic label with consumer expectations. A statement from the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which governs the National Organic Program (NOP) noted that OLPP "will allow USDA to ensure consistency and transparency across organic production and handling systems, bolstering consumer confidence and strengthening the market for organic products."
Concerns Over Biosecurity Risks
During an extended public comment period in early summer 2016, OLPP garnered 6,675 public comments. It was widely praised by independent organic producers, consumers, and a coalition of 15 animal welfare organizations that offered refinements to OLPP while urging quick finalization. For others, the rule change raised alarms, especially over the biosecurity risks for poultry.
But some giant egg producers, many of whom have conventional operations as well, along with some veterinarians and state agricultural organizations challenged the outdoor access rule based on what they say are unthinkable disease and contamination risks. The avian flu epidemic in 2015 caused $3.3 billion dollars in losses according to U.S. Poultry, and the poultry industry is bracing for the next outbreak.
Despite the fact that it was only confinement operations--and not one outdoor flock--that suffered losses from the 2015 outbreak, the requirement to put laying hens in contact with soil and outside of the protected shelter of the porches has remained the hot button issue for opponents of OLPP. Last week, the discovery of a wild duck found in Montana carrying the H5N2 virus reignited demands to stop the rule from going into effect.
In drafting the OLPP, the USDA made allowances to protect birds from disease through temporary confinement during bird migrations. OTA's Senior Crops and Livestock Specialist Nate Lewis said, "To imply that this regulation puts their birds at risk is completely unwarranted." The USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which monitors biosecurity, concurred and it has detected no influenza-related disease or mortality among domestic flocks.
Economic Implications for Organic Egg Producers
The majority of certified organic producers already comply with the new rule, according to several industry experts familiar with NOP. With respect to the egg industry, OTA estimates that just 5 percent of producers are out of compliance with the outdoor access provision--but those few companies produce a great deal of the eggs. And industrial-scale egg producers have invested heavily in the $40 billion organic market.
This group of large producers face sizable economic implications, as genuine outdoor access usually involves more land, more exits for the animals, and reducing stocking densities to meet new indoor space requirements. For this reason, USDA built in a five-year timeline into the rule to meet the outdoor access standard, while all other standards must be met within one year of the publication of the rule to maintain organic certification.
The USDA has estimated that up to 90 percent of current organic egg producers will leave the market in favor of the cage-free market. And while some public comments expressed concern over an organic egg shortage and price hikes, the USDA justified the move in the Federal Register by saying: "organic livestock production standards that are relevant and responsive to consumer preferences should drive demand for organic products and attract new entrants to the organic livestock market."
Several egg producers Civil Eats spoke to expressed confidence that those who comply with the OLPP will have the capacity and the market incentives to make up the loss. In its own analysis of the economic implications of OLPP, the ASPCA cited research indicating that consumers are willing to pay more for "products perceived to be from higher welfare conditions." The ASPCA has also found that the majority of Americans identify as "very concerned" about the treatment of farm animals and awareness of welfare labels has reached an all-time high.
The USDA is working toward strengthening the organic seal even as the clock winds down on the Obama administration.
Elanor Starmer, the USDA's Agriculture Marketing Service Administrator, told Civil Eats that the rule "is a critical component of our efforts to uphold the integrity of the organic seal."