There are lots of rules to follow if you're a farmer who uses the USDA-certified Organic label on the food you sell. There are strict regulations around pesticides and herbicides used on organic crops in addition to other rules about the types of food your animals can eat.
But animal welfare considerations aren't part of what it takes to be labeled "organic" by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, beyond the nonspecific guidance that animals be "raised in living conditions accommodating their natural behaviors." This ill-defined section of the standard has meant that many large agribusiness companies can raise animals in conditions indistinguishable from those at factory farms — and still use the organic label. That's one of the reasons you see other labels, like the Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane, on egg cartons or elsewhere.
If that's a surprise to you, you're not alone. Surveys have shown that most people think organic means better for animals as well as the environment. But guaranteeing the well-being of farm animals wasn't part of the original certification scheme. (But to be clear, the rules on the organic label for cows has and does include time outdoors, according to changes made in June 2010.)
That disparity was going to change, simply because when consumers' expectations of what organic means doesn't match the reality, it undermines the value of the standard. The public wanted organic to mean more. So as part of a 14-year effort that brought together retailers, farmers, animal advocates, consumers and the USDA, new rules that gave farm animals guarantees to easy outdoor access (for all species), indoor and outdoor space for chickens, and pain-control requirements, were finalized on Jan. 17, 2017.
Those rules were set to go into effect in 2018 but were delayed several times by the incoming Trump-Pence administration. Then, the USDA announced in March it was scrapping the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) .
"The existing robust organic livestock and poultry regulations are effective," said USDA Marketing and Regulatory Program Undersecretary Greg Ibach in the USDA's announcement. "The organic industry’s continued growth domestically and globally shows that consumers trust the current approach that balances consumer expectations and the needs of organic producers and handlers."
It's not just the people who put the bill together who are disappointed; thousands of consumers who supported the bill are too: “By the department’s own count, out of the more than 47,000 comments the department received in the last public comment period … 99 percent were in favor of the rule becoming effective without further delay," the Organic Trade Association, which is now suing the USDA, said in a statement. In fact, there were only 28 comments out of the 47,000 that were against the OLPP. What the vast majority of people wanted doesn't seem to have been taken into consideration by the USDA.
Rule changes benefit large-scale farming operations
While many smaller organic producers are already paying close attention to how their animals are treated, the rule change means any company that uses the USDA Organic label won't be subject to animal welfare considerations. Especially when it comes to eggs, this allows large egg producers to charge more for the organic label by doing little more than changing the ingredients in the chickens' feed. This is a big disadvantage for smaller egg producers, whose prices are undercut by larger companies with the same USDA organic logo on their boxes but not necessarily the same practices.
The last-minute elimination of this rule is a loss for anyone who cares about animal welfare. It's also a loss for anyone who cares about small farmers.
It was part of a package of rules that were set to improve environmental health and even the playing field between agribusiness and smaller family farms. Modern Farmer reports that the small farmer-favoring Farmer Fair Practices Rule or GIPSA rule was nixed earlier this year.
“This is yet another example of the USDA manipulating its rule-making process to benefit Big Agriculture interests and, in the process, abandoning its duty to support responsible organic farmers and consumers who have fought alongside animal advocates for nearly two decades to make this rule a reality," American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals president and CEO Matt Bershadker said in a statement.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in December 2017.