USDA Definition Of “Organic” Meat Revised To Include Considerations Of Animal Welfare

Image courtesy of Kevin Cardosi

The current USDA requirements for “Organic” meat involve restrictions on what the animals are fed and when they can be provided antibiotics, but newly finalized rules will expand the criteria for earning an “Organic” label to include considerations of animal welfare.

The rule [PDF] adds new requirements for organic livestock farmers, like giving the animals access to outdoor areas with grass (or at least soil; no parking lots) at least once a day, and the animals must have ready access to the outside. Enclosed porches do not qualify as meeting this requirement. The rule does allow for exceptions for times when it’s in the animals’ best interest to remain inside temporarily.

For poultry, the rule spells out the minimum space requirements, and sets limits on ammonia content in the indoor air and on the use of artificial light.

De-beaking of chickens and docking of cow tails is among the physical alterations that the new rule prohibits.

Finally, the rule includes mandatory guidelines for transport of animals to slaughter or sale, along with humane treatment at the point of slaughter.

The new requirements only apply to products seeking the USDA’s Organic designation. Supporters of the rule — like our colleagues at Consumers Union — contend that this update brings the Organic label up to the standards that shoppers expect.

“The overwhelming majority of consumers believe that the organic label represents extremely high standards and this rule finally meets those standards for animal welfare,” said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for CU.

Opponents of the Organic revision — led by the National Pork Producers Council — are painting the rule as a “midnight regulation” being dumped on the industry during the last week of the Obama administration.

However, that sentiment glosses over the fact that this rulemaking process began nearly a year ago, with the USDA releasing the proposed draft of the rule in April 2016.

“Animal production practices have nothing to do with the concept of ‘organic,’” writes NPPC President John Weber, who contends that the law only limits considerations of organic livestock to issues of what the animals eat and which drugs they receive.

However, while the Organic Food Production Act [PDF] does explicitly deal with these two topics, it also leaves the door open for revision.

“The National Organic Standards Board shall recommend to the Secretary standards in addition to [those practices specifically prohibited by this law] for the care of livestock to ensure that such livestock is organically produced,” reads the original law.

The NPPC says it will push for the incoming Trump administration and the industry-friendly GOP Congress to repeal this rule.

Consumer advocates are calling on lawmakers to leave the rule in place.

“Congress should not give special treatment to livestock companies who might want to charge higher prices for organic meat, poultry, dairy and eggs without having to actually produce those foods the way consumers expect,” says CU’s Halloran.

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