When the US Department of Agriculture withdrew the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule earlier this year, it did so at the behest of a handful of large organic producers that seek to profit from low animal raising standards. The regulation, which was finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration, would have set minimum welfare standards for the millions of farm animals raised each year under the USDA Certified Organic label. The USDA, under President Trump, delayed the implementation of the rule multiple times (see AWI Quarterly, spring 2018) before finally scrapping it completely in March.
The USDA justified its move by stating that it now interprets the Organic Foods Production Act to mean the department can only regulate animal health care, not animal welfare. This stance is nonsensical. Not only has the department already determined it has the authority to regulate animal welfare, it has consistently done so in the past.
The USDA’s withdrawal of the rule, and its rationale for the action, prompted AWI to produce a report documenting the strong connection between the health and welfare of animals raised for food. The report, entitled The Critical Relationship Between Farm Animal Health and Welfare, reviews the results of dozens of scientific studies conducted over the past half century that have demonstrated this link. In fact, the USDA’s own in-house research arm, the Agricultural Research Service, has played a role in establishing the association.
Historically, the primary concern of the animal agriculture industry and government officials in the United States has been animal production and food safety. It has long been understood that the health of farm animals affects the productivity of those animals, as well as the safety and quality of animal products. However, owing to the findings of numerous scientific studies, it has become generally accepted that poor health affects welfare, as well—negatively affecting an animal’s mental state and ability to perform natural behaviors. Science has brought increasing recognition that the reverse is also true: poor animal welfare has a profound effect on animal health, and, consequently, on food safety and meat quality.
In recent years, various animal health authorities, including national and international veterinary associations, have recognized the link between animal health and animal welfare. Animal agricultural associations, including the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, and food safety bodies, such as the European Food Safety Authority, have also acknowledged the link.
In fact, the impact of animal welfare on animal health has even led the US animal agriculture industry to voluntarily limit or eliminate entirely certain previously common animal husbandry practices. The AWI report presents four such examples: 1) the administration of growth hormones to dairy cattle, 2) extreme confinement of calves raised for veal, 3) tail-docking of dairy cattle, and 4) forced molting of egg-laying hens. More than one dozen additional examples of the undeniable link between farm animal health and welfare are offered in the report’s appendix.
The AWI report is available at www.awionline.org/fa-welfare.