Your Organic Eggs and Meat are Probably Not as Humane as You Think

organic eggs may not be as humane as you think

The 90-day public comment period for the new USDA organic animal welfare rule ended on July 13. The rule was intended to create more stringent standards for organic eggs and other animal products. However, the organic watchdog group, the Cornucopia Institute, immediately came out with criticism of the rule as a “’giveaway to factory farm interests masquerading as organic.” The group deemed it not strict enough and too timely to implement.

The rule, which has drawn more than 6,000 comments since it was announced in April, affects both organic birds and mammals, but organic eggs and poultry would be most impacted. Many critics claim the new standards are too stringent for this sector.

“It looks like USDA is trying to kill the organic egg market and the organic poultry market,” Rep. Doug Collins told Agri-Pulse. “And if that’s their intention, they’re succeeding by this rule.”

Cornucopia, meanwhile, criticizes the new regulations for not being stringent enough, particularly the regulations for outdoor roaming space for hens. Provisions in the proposed rule for avians include allocating 3-4.5 pounds of laying hen (approximately one hen) per square foot of indoor space, and 2.25 pounds of hen per square foot of outdoor space, with more space for broilers. Only half of this outdoor space is required to be soil.

Cornucopia has also criticized the time it would take for the new regulations to be implemented. As written, the USDA organic rule requires all provisions except outdoor space requirements for poultry to be fulfilled within the first year, and implementation of all provisions to be completed within five to seven years, depending on the organic status of the farm when the rule is implemented.

“At best, the USDA proposal delays enforcement for five to seven years allowing continued factory farm confinement production,” states Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for The Cornucopia Institute. “Families, with growing children to feed, can’t wait that long for nutritionally superior food.”

Cornucopia is calling for consumers to fight back by opting for organic eggs from family farms instead of eggs from industrially sized organic operations. The group relaunched its organic egg brand scorecard last Thursday, which ranks brands of organic eggs based on several criteria including ownership structure, average flock size, and indoor and outdoor space allotted to hens.

The Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association also submitted comments on the rule last Wednesday, claiming that the federal rule was “onerous” and overreaching.

“Whether producing organic or conventionally raised beef, American ranchers continue to be the best caretakers of their cattle,” said Richard Thorpe, TSCRA president and rancher from Winters, Texas. “This commitment has led to a successful Beef Quality Assurance (BQA) program that provides guidelines and recommendations from animal care experts who utilize peer-reviewed science.”

Mammalian provisions in the rule include a clarification of the former requirement for “natural maintenance, comfort behaviors, and opportunity to exercise,” now adding that “sufficient space and freedom to lie down in full lateral recumbence, turn around, stand up, fully stretch their limbs without touching other animals or the sides of the enclosure, and express normal patterns of behavior,” must be allowed.

Solid, large bedding areas are also required for mammals, so that animals are kept “clean, dry, and free of lesions.”

The rule and its provisions were developed by the USDA based upon 2011 recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board.

The total retail market for organic products is now valued at over $39 billion in the United States.

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Free-range chickens image via Shutterstock

Emily Monaco
Emily Monaco

Emily Monaco is an American food and culture writer based in Paris. She loves uncovering the stories behind ingredients and exposing the face of our food system, so that consumers can make educated choices. Her work has been published in the Wall Street Journal, Vice Munchies, and Serious Eats.