The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) just released new standards for how organic producers raise livestock, which could mean that future organic eggs and meat will come from more humanely-treated animals.
Did you know that current organic standards include few protections for animals? That's right, and frankly, it is quite jarring to realize that animals raised to produce organic eggs and meat, until now, could do so in basically the same inhumane conditions as animals on those horrific factory farms, minus the chemical inputs, of course.
This is a real problem, because many consumers believe animal welfare standards are part of the organic label, leading to confusion at the grocery store.
“One of the chief reasons shoppers choose to pay more for organic foods is because they believe animals raised under organic systems are treated better," the Animal Welfare Institute said in a press statement. “The proposed regulations represent the first comprehensive federal standards for the raising of farm animals in the United States.”
In fact, the new regulations would go beyond this and make some big changes in livestock health, as detailed in a lengthy Q&A from the USDA:
"This proposed rule would provide specificity on livestock health care practices, such as which physical alteration procedures are prohibited or restricted for use on organic livestock [and] would set separate standards for mammalian and avian livestock living conditions to better reflect the needs and behaviors of the different species, as well as related consumer expectations."
“Organic is the most comprehensive standard for agriculture and so it must promote sound animal welfare principles,” said Paige Tomaselli, senior attorney for the Center for Food Safety, in a press statement. “To be effective, that standard must include necessary safeguards to ensure animals are well-fed, healthy, have access to the outdoors, are raised in an environment that allows them to engage in natural behaviors and are humanely slaughtered.”
One of the key changes will more clearly define what should be, frankly, quite simple. It will ensure that “outdoor access” means that chickens can actually go ... outside. It would also mandate minimum space allotments for animals, and include more regulations on humane treatment in slaughterhouses.
Unfortunately, these standards may take time to come into place, partly because the meat and egg industry has deep pockets and will do anything to stand in the way of progress at the cost of their profits. This includes major organic producers, such as Organic Valley, which benefit from consumers perceiving them as having the same standards as far more ethical competitors.
The power of the food industry is why we did not even have a national organic standard until 2000. Others believe the standards don't go far enough, citing the paltry space requirement of 2 square feet in chicken regulations as barely acceptable.
In the best-case scenario, these standards won't go into effect for five years, after what was already a five-year drafting process. Such is the state of progress in agriculture, where inertia is the game. For now, I'll stick to the strict standards of organic, certified humane eggs and an otherwise vegetarian diet. Hopefully, someday, we'll have a USDA that puts the concerns of consumers ahead of producers. These regulations, if implemented, would be a welcome step in the right direction toward a more humane, sustainable food system.
Image credit: Ivan Welsh via Flickr