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U.S. Organic Program

© VIER PFOTEN | Gabriel Paun

USDA withdraws plans to dramatically upgrade animal welfare standards under U.S. Organic program


In 2017 under the Obama administration, a rule was finalized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to strengthen the integrity of the organic products label. The rule, known as the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, was supposed to go into effect on March 17, 2017 and be fully implemented by March 20, 2018. 


However, the Trump administration and USDA repeatedly pushed the implementation date back, and in March 2018 the USDA officially withdrew all plans to implement the previously accepted rule.


Before this decision was made, the USDA requested comments from the public, which FOUR PAWS submitted in opposition to their proposal to throwout the 2017 rule. The agency received "approximately 72,000 comments on the proposal to withdraw the OLPP final rule. The majority of comments, over 63,000, opposed the withdrawal of that final rule."  


This harmful reversal in public policymaking completely ignored the overwhelming support for this rule from the American public and organic producers alike. Ensuring the humane treatment of farm animals protects the animals, consumers, and the farmers who uphold those standards. Failure to implement this rule hurts the integrity of the organic products label and puts the livelihoods of family farmers, and consumers faith in this label, in jeopardy.  

The U.S. Organics Program


Currently under the USDA’s Organic program regulations, a high level of specificity is not provided for many species, like chickens. For instance, while outdoor access is required the amount, duration, and quality of access are undefined and left up to the discretion of the farm. This results in outdoor access on farms ranging from extensive pastures to roofed enclosures, such as porches with no access to soil or vegetation. Covered poultry porches are allowed to count for outdoor access because the regulations do not specify outdoor space requirements.


The 2017 rule covered a whole array of housing, husbandry, and management topics, including the prohibition of certain painful practices, like tail docking of pigs and cattle and debeaking of birds. It also included new requirements for animal handling and the transporting of animals to slaughter.

The new rule would have:


1. Clarified how organic producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their wellbeing.


2. Clarified when and how certain physical alterations may be performed on organic livestock and poultry in order to minimize stress. The rule prohibits certain cruel practices like tail docking of cattle (the act of removing parts of a cow’s tail since tails were thought to be the cause of an outbreak of leptospirosis among milkers, a disease caused by bacteria in animal urine) the transportation of sick, injured, or lame animals, and the mulesing of sheep (cutting the skin from the back legs and buttocks to prevent flystrike, typically caused when wool retains feces and urine.) It also clarifies the requirement that animals cannot be tightly confined.


3. Set maximum indoor and outdoor stocking densities for organic chickens.


4. Defined outdoor space and requires that outdoor spaces for organic poultry include soil and vegetation. In the past, this has been a prominent issue. Many farmers would claim organic status, but some farmers’ definition of organic differed from their competitor’s. Some practices provided large open- air outdoor areas where others might have provided a screened- in- porch or enclosure as qualifying outdoor space. Outdoor space for avian species is now defined as 50 percent of the outdoor space being soil-based and the soil must be maximally covered with vegetation. This vegetative cover must be maintained and free of rodents and other pests. For avian species, the definition of outdoors has been revised to include pasture pens, which are floorless pens that are moved regularly and provide direct access to soil and vegetation.


5. Added new requirements for transporting organic livestock and poultry for sale or slaughter.


6. Clarified the application of USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) requirements and enforcement of USDA organic regulations based on FSIS inspection findings.


7. Established indoor space requirements for chickens. AMS may propose space requirements for other avian species in the future. Other avian species must meet all other indoor requirements including exit doors, ammonia levels, and lighting.


The implementation of this rule was incredibly important for many animals and it should have been put into action as previously planned.