Proposed regulations could bring greater humane animal treatment into meat, egg, and dairy products bearing the USDA organic certification, says the agency.
On April 7, USDA introduced its proposal based on input from the National Organic Standards Board. The rule would “clarify how producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and wellbeing, specify when and which physical alterations are allowed or prohibited and establish minimum indoor and outdoor space and quality requirements,” reports Food Navigator.
The agency said that current practices may not comply with the “spirit” of the national organic standards, even if producers are observing the rules “by-the-book”
Under the proposed new standards, the National Organic Program would include taking measures to minimize pain and stress in surgical procedures. Common procedures such as de-beaking would be banned after the animal was 10 days old. Branding on the face, tail docking cattle, and sheep mulesing would also be banned. Producers would also have to guarantee ammonia levels were no more than 25 parts per million in poultry houses.
“Surveys show most consumers believe organic poultry and livestock regularly spend time outdoors, have fresh air throughout the day and have significantly more space than conventionally raised livestock” reports Food Navigator, even though that’s not always the case for certified organic animal operations.
“This disparity,” USDA wrote in the proposal, “causes consumer confusion about the meaning of the USDA organic label, threatens to erode consumer confidence in the organic label more broadly and perpetuates unfair competition among producers.”
The proposed rule would also require poultry houses to provide at least one square foot of space per every 2.25 pounds of hen—a proposal that comes as consumer concern over animal welfare is at an all-time high.
Walmart recently announced plans to switch its supply chain to cage-free eggs after dozens of other companies have made the same commitment. Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer with more than 4,600 U.S. locations, sells about 11 billion eggs per year.
Battery cages were the norm for egg-laying hens just a few years ago, but like gestation crates for sows—now banned in 9 states—chickens have an abysmal amount of room in battery cages, barely enough space to open up a wing. But the move to “cage-free” doesn’t mean pasture-raised or even time spent outdoors. It’s not currently a USDA-regulated term, but under the proposed rule, there would be more accountability for organic poultry producers.
“Ensuring that the high expectations consumers have for organic foods are met preserves the organic seal’s reputation as the gold standard for agricultural production practices,” Laura Batcha, CEO of the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement about the USDA’s proposed rule.
The USDA says the new proposals for animal welfare would be a value-add to the organic community at large, boosting consumer commitment to spending more money on organic products that also take animal wellbeing into consideration.
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