US Organic Standards: Slow Progress on Animal Welfare

When the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) published the country’s first national standards for organic production and established the National Organic Program (NOP) in 2000, provisions dealing with the treatment of the animals being raised were all but absent. From the beginning, the organic regulations required that animals be given freedom of movement and access to the outdoors, fresh air and direct sunlight. There are, however, no minimum space allowances for animals, no requirement that animals have access to vegetation, and painful physical alterations (often to deal with problems associated with overcrowding) continue to be allowed. Moreover, certain large-scale organic producers have taken advantages of loopholes in the regulations to keep birds inside year-round and deny dairy cows access to pasture.

Little has changed in terms of animal welfare since the NOP was launched. USDA did eventually tighten the regulation dealing with access to pasture for cattle and other ruminants, and stopped allowing the use of small screened porches on concrete slabs as acceptable “outdoor” access for chickens. Finally recognizing the importance of animal welfare, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)—which advises the USDA in setting standards—is now in the process of recommending welfare-specific regulations for the organic program.

AWI has helped coordinate engagement by animal welfare organizations in the development of the NOP’s welfare regulations. Some notable progress has been made in the draft standards prepared by the NOSB, such as adding minimum space allowances for poultry, mandating that vegetation be available to poultry and pigs, banning tail docking of cattle and pigs, and requiring pain relief for dehorning. (While the recommended changes have been submitted to USDA by the standards board, they must still go through the rulemaking process and likely won’t take effect for years.)

The fact that the US organic program remains extremely weak on animal welfare didn’t stop the United States from recently entering into an equivalency agreement with its largest trading partner, the European Union. As of June 1, products produced and certified under the NOP may be marketed as “organic” in the EU. While the agreement has been touted as a “monumental” arrangement that opens up international trade for organic farmers, it disregards the extreme differences in animal care standards between the EU and US organic programs. The equivalency also gives lower-welfare American producers a market advantage over their higher-welfare counterparts in Europe.

AWI is leading the effort to put pressure on governments on both sides of the Atlantic to strengthen the US organic standards and bring them more in line with EU standards. While the NOSB has stated that it desires to make the US organic seal the “gold standard” for humane treatment, it has far to go before that goal can be realized.

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