Modest Organic Farm Animal Welfare Standards Draw Ire of Agribusiness

Gene_Baur_1-Gene Baur

In one of its final actions under the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) finalized a rule updating standards to improve farm animal welfare in organic production. While it is encouraging to see the USDA addressing growing popular concerns about the suffering of farm animals, these new guidelines, like most legislation or regulations protecting farm animal welfare, leave much to be desired.

The final organic rule was supported by mainstream animal protection groups and organic producers, and it was opposed by agribusinesses and lawmakers in Washington, D.C. who represent factory farming interests. In response to the final rule, House Agriculture Committee Chairman, K. Michael Conaway (R-TX), said: “I am disappointed to see yet another controversial rule pushed through during the final hours of the Obama administration. Not only do animal welfare standards go beyond the scope of the National Organic Program… I hope that the incoming Administration will immediately withdraw this rule…”

The updated animal welfare standards sought to better align organic production methods with the expectations of consumers who believe organic farmers take good care of their animals. Sadly, animals who are raised and sold as organic typically live in factory farm conditions. They are seen primarily as production units, and as the organic market has grown, organic farming has become increasingly industrialized. Organically raised farm animals are routinely overcrowded and subjected to inhumane treatment.

Among the improvements made in the updated standards is an explicit prohibition on the practice of starvation-induced forced molting, which shocks the bodies of egg-laying hens into a new egg production cycle. The updated standards also more clearly specify that organically raised farm animals are to be provided access to the outdoors, and they require that sick and injured animals, including “downed animals,” be given necessary medical treatment. It mandates, “Any non-ambulatory livestock on organic farms must be medically treated, even if the treatment causes the livestock to lose organic status or be humanely euthanized.” Farm Sanctuary has advocated this approach for decades, and we believe it should apply to farms beyond those certified as organic.

The new standards restrict some routine mutilations, including tail docking of dairy cows, and they limit other mutilations, such as the “debeaking” of chickens. But “beak trimming,” where up to one-third of the bird’s beak is removed is allowed. (If more than one-third of the beak is removed, it is classified as “debeaking” and prohibited.) The standards prohibit “toe trimming,” but allow “toe clipping,” where the nail and distal joint of chickens and turkeys toes can be removed. All of these painful alterations of birds’ beaks and toes can be performed without pain relief.

The organic rule, like so many other policies, laws and regulations pertaining to farm animals, grants only minimal protections, and ultimately, animals raised for organic certification, like other animals exploited for food, are treated more like commodities than like living feeling animals like. The updated organic rule limits some of the abuses routinely endured by farm animals, but it still places commercial interests above ethical considerations.

The good news is that U.S. consumers are paying attention to how their food is produced. They are troubled by the suffering of animals exploited on factory farms, and they are looking for alternatives. The demand for products labeled as humane, sustainable, natural, free-range, cage-free, organic, etc. is growing, but unfortunately, these claims almost always sound better than they are, and consumers are being misled.

100% Plant-Powered!

100% Plant-Powered!

Of course, the best way to avoid causing unnecessary animal suffering is to eat delicious plant-based foods instead of animals!

 

First, Do No Harm

2011-01-13-farmsanctuaryjune10606

Continuing to revisit previous posts from Gene, we go back to January 2011 to review the place of veterinarians in working to help farm animals:


A 2010 Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) published an article  announced: “Veterinarian’s Oath revised to emphasize animal welfare commitment: Prevention of animal suffering also a key addition.” The updated oath, which was adopted despite stiff opposition within the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), reads as follows with additions in italics:

“Being admitted to the profession of veterinary medicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.”

For decades, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has upheld the status quo and defended cruel factory farming practices, including intensive confinement systems like veal crates, gestation crates, and battery cages. In 2002, as Florida’s voters pondered whether to become the first U.S. state to outlaw gestation crates, the AVMA adopted a formal position statement endorsing these 2-foot-wide metal enclosures to confine breeding sows. Thankfully, voters rejected the AVMA’s antiquated position, and gestation crates are now illegal in Florida.

After the Florida vote, Farm Sanctuary pressured the AVMA to rethink their policies on several issues and we conducted a survey of veterinarians across the U.S., which found that more than 80% considered gestation crates and other cruel farming practices to be objectionable. In response, AVMA started refining some of their positions, including the adoption of a policy against the tail docking of dairy cows. Still, despite these positive reforms, the AVMA maintains close ties to the factory farming industry, and it continues to defend practices that most citizens and veterinarians consider to be outside the bounds of acceptable conduct.

The AVMA’s decision to update the veterinary oath is a positive step, and it is a reflection of a more humane attitude that is emerging within the veterinary profession, especially as new veterinarians, many of them women take up the vocation. Explicitly recognizing the importance of protecting animal welfare and preventing animal suffering represents important progress. As veterinarians come to take this oath seriously, and as they begin applying it in the real world, the days of factory farming will be numbered.