First-Ever Farm Animal Welfare Rules Enshrined in Federal Law

New animal welfare standards in place for “organic seal” in place after more than 20 years of foot-dragging and political interference.

Earlier this year, the Biden Administration sided with the National Pork Producers Council to urge the Supreme Court of the United States to overturn Proposition 12. The good news is, a majority of justices across the ideological spectrum rejected the Administration’s arguments, recognizing that the states have a vital role to play in placing limits on commerce that jeopardizes animal welfare and public health. That state election—along with a similar measure in Massachusetts (Question 3) that also restricted the sale of meat and eggs that come from intensively confined, factory-farmed animals — was allowed to stand.

Now come many of the same actors in this Administration, siding this time with animal advocates and family farmers in a separate matter of major consequence for farm animal policy. The USDA late last week made final a set of long-delayed regulations to establish the first national farm-animal welfare standards for products gaining the organic seal.

Consumers generally understand that fruits, vegetables, and grains labeled as “organic” are not treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides and that animal products so labeled are not infused with hormones or antibiotics. This new rulemaking builds on the very meager animal welfare standards in place since the original rules were adopted in 2002 and boosts them dramatically with a comprehensive set of standards for farm animal welfare. This comes some 33 years after Congress first authorized the National Organics Act and created a mechanism to accredit third-party organizations to certify that farms and businesses are complying with the terms of the organic seal.

A Tool for Conscious Consumers

Robust and meaningful organic animal agriculture standards — in the works for decades and the product of input from organic farmers, animal welfare advocates, and other Americans — demonstrate the emerging social consensus on farm animal welfare. There were no laws to protect animals on farms until 2002 when Florida voters banned gestation crates. Voters in Arizona and California followed closely in establishing anti-confinement standards and now there are more than a dozen states with important farm animal protection laws.

With the adoption of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Protection rule, more than 60 million animals will receive new protections under these standards, and that number of animals covered by the program is sure to grow with consumers now understanding that their purchases in the marketplace will be tied to meaningful protections for animals on the farm.

The new standards, enshrined in the final Organic Livestock and Poultry Protection rule, prohibit the use of gestation crates for pigs and cage housing for laying hens; they prohibit tail-docking of pigs and cattle and debeaking of birds; and they require meaningful outdoor access for all animals raised under the organic label. The new rule also rejects the efforts by some cage-free producers to allow indoor “porches” to qualify as outdoor access for laying hens. The rule also contains additional standards for pigs relating to their ability to root and live in group housing.

The OLPP standards also provide more space to birds, allowing them to fully stretch their wings when indoors, as well as mandating outdoor access, natural lighting availability, and more protective air-monitoring requirements. Organically reared farm animals, including pigs, must now have year-round outdoor access and be able to move and stretch their limbs at all times.

Factory Farmers and Their Government Allies Fought Progress for Decades

The rule had become a political football over the past two decades as it went through 14 years of drafting and review before Agriculture Secretary Vilsack issued a final rulemaking just hours before the Obama Administration turned over the keys to the Trump team in January 2017. But Vilsack’s maneuver was tokenism, with the Secretary knowing that the big-agriculture bosses soon to take over from him at USDA would bury the rule right out of the gate. And that’s exactly what happened. In his second run as Agriculture Secretary, Vilsack did the right thing in recycling the rule, but he gets very tempered plaudits because his original lack of timely action and his lack of enthusiasm for animal-welfare policies that delayed the application of these farm-animal standards for seven years.

This go-around, Vilsack had little choice but to revisit this issue given that public comments on the rule ran 99 to 1 in favor of strong standards for animal welfare. Organic farmers, along with the respected Organic Trade Association and our animal-welfare organizations, demanded the new legal framework, knowing that the absence of any animal-welfare standards shook public confidence in the organic label.

Now, with 14 months remaining in the first term for President Biden, the rulemaking is not vulnerable to a challenge under the Congressional Review Act since it will not fall within the final 180 days of the end of the term of the Administration. And with thousands of family farmers — the key stakeholders in the agricultural community backing the measure — it should be able to withstand other political challenges from farm-state lawmakers who take their cues from factory-farming interests.

A 2015 Consumer Reports survey found that more than 70 percent of Americans believe there should be meaningful minimum-size living space requirements for farm animals raised under the organic label and that those animals should have access to the outdoors, yet the prior regulations never guaranteed these basic protections for organically raised animals. Another Consumer Reports survey showed that more than 80 percent of Americans support the standards enshrined in the new rule.

To our dismay, however, the rule gives existing organic poultry operations, or those that become certified organic within the first year following the rule’s enactment, five years from the effective date to meet the specific requirements related to indoor and outdoor stocking density, outdoor space, and exit area. This is an inordinately long delay, layered on top of 21 years of prior delays.

All producers wishing to market their products under the label have had years to get this right, under the assumption that the entire legal framework should have been completed during the second Obama term. Delaying implementation of some of the poultry standards for five years is unwarranted and, for the producers who already adhere to these standards, unfair and a detriment to their business operations.

Rule Likely to Spur Surge in Interest in Organic Products

When the National Organics Program was created in 1990, Congress recognized that the organic livestock sector was small, only consisting of about 100 producers. With key farm-practice rules developed by the Agricultural Marketing Service more than a decade later, the industry now generates more than $43 billion in sales, especially with Whole Foods and its longtime CEO John Mackey leading the supermarket sector in putting these foods on the shelf and promoting them. All major supermarkets now stock organic products.

With no federal legal standards ever in place for farm animals before the OLPP rule, consumers were shopping in the dark when it came to animal welfare. They had no idea what the backstory was for the animal products in the meat section or the dairy case, even as there was more granular information in the egg section, thanks to the work of Vital Farms and some other animal-welfare-centered companies.

But today, Americans who eat meat and eggs and drink milk have a new opportunity to show that they care about the treatment of animals. If knowledge shapes behavior in the marketplace, it will indeed translate into better living conditions for animals on the farm. And with so many billions of animals at risk in our food-production system, that is an enormously consequential moment for the movement to give them better lives.

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