Home Industry News Economics Organic Trade Association Hails Long-Awaited Organic Animal Welfare Rule

Organic Trade Association Hails Long-Awaited Organic Animal Welfare Rule

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) celebrated the strengthening of organic animal welfare standards by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), saying the long-awaited action by the department is a major win for producers and consumers who have steadily advocated for the more robust regulations.

“The organic sector and organic consumers have been clamoring for stricter animal welfare standards for 20 years now, and the OTA and its members have spearheaded that fight,” said Tom Chapman, CEO of the Organic Trade Association. “These new standards not only create a more level playing field for organic producers, but they ensure consumers that the organic meat, poultry, dairy and eggs they choose have been raised with plenty of access to the real outdoors, and in humane conditions.”

The USDA on October 25 announced its final Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards (OLPS) regulation. The regulation creates clear standards for outdoor access for organic poultry including minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements, and further clarifies living conditions, healthcare, transportation, and slaughter practices to support animal welfare for all organic avian and mammalian livestock species. Most importantly, the rule clarifies that screened-in, enclosed porches do NOT qualify as sufficient outdoor space for organic chickens. Current organic poultry producers have up to five years to implement the new regulations.

“Having clear, consistent and enforceable standards is paramount for the organic sector to not only maintain consumer trust but to ensure that farms and businesses of all sizes have a fair shot at competing in the marketplace by meeting a minimum set of requirements,” said Chapman. “The road to this final step has been long and often bumpy, and we thank all our members, allies and advocates for not giving up on our fight to strengthen organic.”

Organic producers applaud the USDA action

“This update to the organic standards could not come soon enough. For organic poultry it will ensure that the farmer, whenever possible, will let their chickens go outside, touch the ground, and frankly scratch around and act like chickens,” said Adam Warthesen, Senior Director of Government & Industry Affairs for organic dairy cooperative Organic Valley. “All organic poultry producers will need to provide real access to the outdoors and that is what certified organic represents. The new standards are a definite improvement over the current reality which has created competitive harm among farmers and not met consumers expectations for what it means to be an organic egg from an organic chicken.”

“Certified organic egg, dairy, and animal producers hold their operations to a higher standard of animal welfare than what is required, both because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s what our customers expect and deserve from us,” said Cameron Whitehead, Chief Operating Officer of organic egg producer Pete & Gerry’s Organics. “The organic industry has been fighting for this rule for more than six years and we’re pleased to see the USDA validate the expectations of organic consumers in a way that enables the industry to continue to prosper.”

“The debate has always been about consumer confidence in the Organic seal. We are pleased that the USDA is committed to restoring that confidence and removing ambiguity of what producing an organic egg means,” said John Brunnquell, President & CEO of Egg Innovations, the midwestern organic, free-range, pasture-raised egg producer.

“At Chino Valley, we have always believed that organic means more than just feed. The passing of this rule ensures one of the most important tenets of organic egg production, outdoor access, is guaranteed and meaningful for the hens that we care for. This is a huge win for the hens. This is a huge win for hundreds of small family farms across our great nation who prefer to farm this way. Thank you to USDA Secretary Vilsack for supporting the rule. Thank you, OTA, for your leadership. Thank you to the rest of the family farms that supported this rule.”  said Chris Nichols, CEO of organic egg producer Chino Valley Ranchers.

“For over 35 years, Applegate Farms has been an advocate for the improvement of animal welfare. To that end, it is essential to us that the USDA maintain the integrity of the Organic standard, and consumer trust in it. We strongly support NOP’s efforts to create greater consistency in organic livestock practices with the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards. We celebrate a final rule that will strengthen organic animal welfare standards, better align organic producers and certifiers, and meet consumer expectations for organic livestock products,” said Carolyn Gahn, Senior Director, Mission & Advocacy for Applegate Farms.

Closing the loopholes 

Outdoor access is a core tenet for organic poultry and livestock production. USDA organic regulations require that all certified organic operations must give their animals “access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight”. But these regulations have not been consistently enforced, resulting in a few large poultry companies utilizing narrow, enclosed porches – usually with a cement floor – instead of true outdoor access.

The result has been inconsistent animal welfare standards for organic chickens and an unlevel playing field for all the organic farmers who treat their birds right. The USDA has acknowledged that the inconsistent interpretation of regulations has caused competitive harm to the organic farmers already adhering to the most robust animal welfare standards.

In 2010, USDA issued a final rule creating clear standards for grazing and access to pasture for organic dairy and cattle. The organic poultry sector called for similar clarifications.

USDA released its final Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) regulation in early 2017, after 14 years of vetting and review by organic stakeholders and industry and government experts. OLPP clarified USDA’s organic animal welfare standards, with an emphasis on poultry. The implementation of that final rule, however, was delayed and blocked, and the rule was ultimately withdrawn. In the fall of 2017, OTA filed a lawsuit against the USDA for unlawfully delaying the implementation of the regulation and violating the Organic Foods Production Act.  Spurred on by the lawsuit and continuing advocacy from the organic sector and the public for stronger animal welfare standards, the current Administration proposed the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards (OLPS) regulation last August, which is in line with the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule.

The public has repeatedly and strongly expressed its support for tighter organic animal welfare rules. Publication of the OLPP proposed regulation in 2017, and the OLPS last year, have drawn solid support. The OLPS rule, in the latest example, was open for comment through November 10, 2022, and attracted overwhelming public support. Analysis showed that out of almost 40,000 posted comments, a huge 89 percent majority were in favor of the regulation being finalized and implemented.

Shoppers flocking to organic 

The organic market has posted steady growth for decades as consumers increasingly value the high organic standards, the environmentally-friendly organic farming practices, and the safe, healthy choice that organic provides for their families. Organic egg sales in the U.S. have more than tripled over the last ten years. So have the sales of organic poultry. Organic food sales in the United States in 2022 broke through $60 billion for the first time, hitting another high-level mark for the resilient organic sector. Total organic sales – including organic non-food products, were a record $67.6 billion, according to OTA’s 2023 Organic Industry Survey.

Animal welfare has been shown to be an important consideration for consumers. Recent research commissioned by the Organic Trade Association shows that 75 percent of Americans are concerned about the treatment of animals by the meat and dairy industry. Animal welfare and outdoor access are core value propositions for organic shoppers, and they are willing to pay more for these benefits.  Organic buyers want to feel confident that the organic eggs and poultry they purchase and serve their families come from chickens that have access to pasture and the outdoors, fresh air and sunlight.

The trust that consumers have in organic is well deserved. Organic agriculture is regulated by the most stringent and comprehensive set of rules governing any form of agriculture. Farmers voluntarily choose to go organic and to abide by these strict organic standards.  USDA, through its National Organic Program, sets the federal standards for all organic products certified to the USDA Organic label. However, organic standards once approved are not set in stone, and are under constant review in a public and transparent process to ensure that they reflect evolving understandings about soil, climate, health, and animal welfare.

“The organic sector has always welcomed clear and fair standards under which to operate, and we are happy the government has at long last moved forward on this sound and much needed regulation,” said Chapman. “This is a victory for the entire organic sector – and for all organic consumers.

About the Organic Trade Association

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for the organic trade in the United States, representing over 10,000 organic businesses across 50 states. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers’ associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA’s Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA’s mission is to promote and protect ORGANIC with a unifying voice that serves and engages its diverse members from farm to marketplace.

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