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