Kitty Block: USDA abandons rule on higher welfare standards for animals raised under organics label

March 13, 2018 – Despite strong public support for the measure, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has killed a rule that established clear and meaningful protections and higher animal welfare standards for farm animals raised under the organics label. The USDA delayed implementation of the rule three times before yesterday’s announcement that it would formally withdraw the rule. This gift props up factory farming operations that exploit the confusion and imprecision of prevailing standards. And it’s a travesty for millions of animals raised within the organic system, as well as the consumers who appreciate organic products and look to the government to support stronger welfare norms under the USDA’s authority.

The USDA now claims—for the first time ever—that it does not have statutory authority to pass rules improving welfare conditions for livestock, including poultry, on organic farms. The agency has conveniently ignored its own regulatory history of doing so, such as with its “access to pasture” rule, promulgated in 2010. That rule required that ruminant animals be allowed to graze, and clarified that producers had to maintain pastures for their animals. The USDA has also ignored comments from key members of Congress that contradict the agency’s recently-formed interpretation.

The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule encompassed an array of housing, husbandry, and management standards, standards that consumers expect when they buy organic products. The rule prohibited cruel practices like “tail docking” of cattle and transporting animals too sick or injured to endure the journey. The rule also ensured that animals raised under the standard could not be tightly confined, and it set minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for egg-laying chickens. Importantly, the rule closed a loophole in current regulations that allow large poultry companies to skirt the law and use screened-in porches to satisfy “outdoor access” requirements.

By withdrawing the rule, which was supported by most prominent organic trade groups and producers, including family farmers, and by some large-scale non-organic producers, such as Perdue Farms, the agency has chosen to ignore the wishes of thousands of stakeholders committed to higher welfare standards. The USDA is also ignoring the wishes of a majority of Americans who want to see the National Organic Program establish criteria in line with their expectations for how animals should be treated before slaughter.

In its haste to rationalize its backtracking, the USDA plays up the “costs” of the organics standards, ignoring that the standards are heavily favored by organic producers. The agency also ignores that the organics market is one in which consumers have already determined that there is added value in paying premiums for products associated with high standards of animal welfare. Indeed, these standards were put together after a decade of careful consideration of its costs and benefits – like ensuring the integrity of a nearly $50 billion industry serving millions of Americans. In a matter like this, the public rightly expected the agency responsible for regulating the nation’s food supply to step up its game, not to take a step backward.

Last May, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, seeking to communicate his view of the agency’s duty to the American people, said, “We owe it to the consumer to let them know we are concerned about their safety and the wholesomeness, nutritious capacity about the food they consume. They deserve to know and we better be able to tell them.”

Apparently, someone in the secretary’s own agency didn’t get the memo.

Kitty Block is acting President and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States and President of Humane Society International, the international affiliate of The HSUS.