USDA: Stricter animal welfare rules announced for organic eggs, meat

January 20, 2017

After years of debate, organic meat and egg producers will have to abide by stricter animal welfare standards under a new rule announced earlier this week by the Agriculture Department.

Although covering many aspects, the biggest impact of the rule will be felt in the organic egg industry, which will require farmers to provide at least one square foot of outdoor space for each 2.25 pounds of poultry in their flock.

Organic egg producers always were required to let their hens go outside, but the organic rules didn't define exactly how much space animals needed. According to one article, this meant some organic egg producers built large chicken houses, containing tens of thousands of hens, while allowing those hens access only to a small enclosed porch, rather than pasture. The new rules, however, translate to about two square feet per egg-laying hen, or about an acre for a flock of 20,000.

According to a survey of organic egg producers that the USDA cited in its rule, about a quarter of all organic egg production currently comes from farms that don't meet the new standard. But the USDA is allowing them a lengthy transition period to adapt. According to the new rule they'll have up to five years to change their operations, building new houses or creating more pasture for their hens, if they want to keep selling certified organic eggs.

The Organic Trade Association, which represents many of the largest organic food companies, praised the new rule, calling it "not only welcome but essential" in order to strengthen consumer confidence in the organic label.

On the other hand, some called the rule "(way) too little and (way) too late," adding that two square feet per hen is "woefully inadequate" and is far less than organically raised hens in Europe receive.

In addition, some lawmakers from other farm groups remain opposed to the rules, which they said could raise food prices and force some farmers out of business. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Agriculture Committee, said he’d work with Donald Trump’s administration after he is inaugurated to try and reverse them.

Before the standards were approved, the Agriculture Department removed language from the proposed rule that would have required producers to provide “suitable enrichment” to entice birds to go outside. That proposed requirement was mocked by Republican lawmakers and drew concern from food safety advocates who said more outdoor access may increase the chances of Salmonella contamination.

The USDA said that requirement was removed because it conflicted with Food and Drug Administration rules to prevent Salmonella illnesses.

The regulations also ensure that organically grown livestock have enough space to lie down, turn around, stand up and fully stretch their limbs.

Currently, the retail market for organic food products is valued at almost $40 billion in the U.S. According to the USDA the number of certified organic operations in the U.S increased by almost 12% between 2014 and 2015, the highest growth rate since 2008 and an increase of nearly 300% since the department began counting operations in 2002.

“The rule is a game-changer for the $40 billion organic market whose consumers often believe that organic farm animals are raised with strong animal welfare standards,” Wayne Pacelle of The Humane Society of the U.S., said in the article.

The National Pork Producers Council said the regulations could add complexity to the organic certification process, “creating significant barriers to existing and new organic producers.” Dave Warner, a spokesman for the pork producers, said the new rule doesn't affect many pork producers directly, because little pork is raised organically, but "we oppose the rule on principle because it sets a bad precedent."

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Category: Food Safety