- The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic standards do not address animal welfare
- In April 2016, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) issued a proposed rule to amend organic livestock and poultry practices to provide for the animals’ welfare
- While some of the changes are a step in the right direction, others favor industrial livestock production (CAFOs) and will essentially legalize organic CAFOs for producing eggs and poultry
There’s a widespread belief in the U.S. that animals raised on organic farms are treated more humanely than animals raised in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). This may be true in some cases, but the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) organic standards do not address animal welfare.
Despite this, a survey conducted for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) found 68 percent of those surveyed expected animals raised on organic farms “have access to outdoor pasture and fresh air throughout the day.”
Another 67 percent believed “[organically raised] animals have significantly more space to move than on non-organic farms.”1
These beliefs, however, are often not the reality on organic farms, especially large organic farms that are owned by major food corporations and operate similarly to conventional CAFOs (making them essentially organic CAFOs).
USDA Proposed Rule on Organic Animal Welfare Falls Flat
In April 2016, the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) issued a proposed rule to amend organic livestock and poultry practices to provide for the animals’ welfare. As reported by the Organic Trade Association (OTA), the changes proposed by the USDA include:2
|Distinct welfare provisions are provided for mammalian and avian livestock||Outdoor access for poultry cannot have a solid roof overhead|
|Outdoor space requirements for poultry must be less than 2.25 pounds of hen per square foot of outdoor space||Outdoor space must have 50 percent soil cover|
|Indoor space requirements for poultry must be less than 2.25 pounds of hen per square foot of indoor space (allowances up to 4.5 pounds per square foot are made for pasture based and aviary style production systems)||Further clarity on justifications for confinement indoors for livestock and poultry|
|Further clarity on physical alterations that are allowed and prohibited||Proposed implementation timeline following the issuance of a final rule: one year for all new organic operations; three years for new livestock housing construction; five years for all certified operations to be in full compliance|
While some of the changes are a step in the right direction, others favor industrial livestock production (CAFOs) and will essentially legalize organic CAFOs for producing eggs and poultry.
The Cornucopia Institute, which engages in educational activities supporting sustainable and organic agriculture, noted, for instance, that:3
- Porches should not be considered outdoor access in poultry operations
- Birds need a minimum of 5 square feet each outdoors
- Vegetation should be required in all outdoor areas for poultry
- One of the dairy proposals allows cows to defecate and urinate on bedding, which jeopardizes animal health and conflicts with the requirement to keep animals clean
Glaring Issues With USDA’s Organic Animal Welfare Proposal
The public comment period on the USDA’s draft rule ended on July 13, 2016, with organic supporters like The Cornucopia Institute calling it a “giveaway to factory farm interests masquerading as organic.” They continued:4
“Cornucopia policy experts and scientists claim that the options presented in the USDA’s draft rule could confine birds to as little as  square foot indoors and only require farms to provide  square feet of ‘pasture’ outdoors, half of which could be covered with concrete.”
“At best, the USDA proposal delays enforcement for five to seven years allowing continued factory farm confinement production,” said Mark A. Kastel, senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute.5 Kastel continued to Mercola.com:
“If corporate agribusiness, and a friendly USDA, succeed in blurring the lines, consumers won’t be able to tell if their organic food is coming from a factory farm or a family farm that truly subscribes to organic practices.
Besides for many people who want to make sure livestock are treated respectfully, unless we have good enforcement, it becomes near impossible to differentiate between the phony-baloney organic brands and [the] ones that offer enhanced nutrition, like elevated omega-3 levels, that people expect when animals are provided access to pasture.”
Industry Groups Balk at Looking Out for Animal Welfare
The organic industry is a mixed bag made up of small farms raising food the right way and large CAFOs that have gotten into the organic market and sell an organic line.
One of the scenarios that prompted to USDA’s draft proposal in the first place was the fact that millions of chickens could be raised in squalid conditions on a CAFO, yet still labeled as organic.6
The reality is that corporate interests want to raise food in industrial CAFO settings yet still get a piece of the organic pie by labeling the questionably raised foods organic.
So far, they’ve been getting away with it, and they don’t want that to change. In comments filed under the USDA’s draft organic rule, for instance:
•The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association argued the USDA doesn’t have authority to put animal welfare standards in place under the organic program, and said the rule implies organically raised food is superior to conventionally and “vilifies conventionally raised livestock.”7
•Cal-Maine Foods, the largest U.S. egg producer, Rose Acre Farms and Herbruck Poultry argued that the proposed requirements would be nearly impossible for big organic egg producers to comply.
They even went so far as to say the proposals could potentially jeopardize bird and human health.8
•The National Chicken Council (NCC), which represents Tyson, Perdue and other large poultry producers, also took issue with the proposed organic rule, specifically the suggestion that porches do not qualify as organic access.
The poultry giant claimed allowing birds outdoors could risk bird health and food safety while increasing costs for organic producers.9
So, basically, they want Americans to believe that keeping birds cooped up in close quarters is a better way to prevent disease than giving them access to fresh air and sunlight — an argument that defies commonsense and reason.
In short, organic CAFOs want to continue to raise animals in confinement and oppose measures that would require provisions that let farm animals be farm animals (like scratching around freely in the dirt, feeling the sun on their backs and foraging for their native diets).
North Carolina CAFO Waste Pits Are Environmental Disasters
If there were any question that raising animals in CAFOs is a disaster for all parties involved (except, maybe, for those raking in the profits), you need only look to North Carolina, where residents are reeling from the effects of living near hog CAFOs.
Every year, 15,000 Olympic pools’ worth of waste come from North Carolina’s CAFOs — the hog CAFOs alone, according to an analysis of maps and data of the state’s CAFOs by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). According to EWG:10
“A new analysis by EWG and Waterkeeper Alliance shows that wet waste, primarily from pigs, in North Carolina’s industrial agricultural operations produce almost 10 billion gallons of fecal waste yearly, enough to fill more than 15,000 Olympic-size swimming pools … Nestled near the Atlantic coast, these counties are beset with numerous air and water quality problems.”
In addition, poultry operations in the state produce more than 2 million tons of dry animal waste annually. The wet animal waste is often applied to croplands as “fertilizer” or dumped into waste lagoons. The open pits allow pathogenic microbes and chemicals to enter the air and waterways. Of the state’s more than 4,100 waste pits, EWG found that:
- 37 were located within one-half mile of a school
- 288 within one-half mile of a church
- 136 within one-half mile of a public water well
- 170 within the state’s 100-year floodplain
This isn’t a problem unique to North Carolina; unfortunately, it’s a familiar scene in many U.S. CAFO states. Alex Formuzis, senior vice president, communications and strategic campaigns for the EWG, wrote of the reality of living near a CAFO:11
“The smell from the manure and ammonia plume dangling above your property is so strong it often triggers vomiting, nause[a] and lung and eye irritation. The tap water could very well contain traces of the offending and dangerous swine waste, too, forcing you to buy and drink bottled water.
The waste saturates your property and builds up along the exterior of the house, attracting droves of flies, mosquitos, rats and snakes. Depression sets in as you and your family face the fact you’ve become prisoners in your own home.
A home you own, pay taxes on, and had hoped would be a safe and comfortable place to live, raise a family and grow old in. This is a slice of the American dream turned into a nightmare, courtesy of the industrial swine operation that borders your property.
Welcome to life alongside a factory farm. This is the reality of [residents of North Carolina] and tens of thousands of other Americans in this state, Iowa, Indiana, Colorado, Missouri and beyond.”
TTIP May Also Stand in the Way of Increased Access to Healthier, Humanely Raised Food
The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed trade agreement between the U.S. and Europe that’s supported by the North American Meat Institute (NAMI), which represents major U.S. meat and poultry producers. According to a report from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), which promotes sustainable food, farming and trade systems, TTIP would result in a corporate meat takeover and policy that favors industry over the public interest.
Provisions in TTIP would allow the global meat industry’s global power to grow. They use the example of transnational meat corporations such as JBS and Smithfield, which they say “could be newly empowered to challenge regulations that hurt their bottom line …”12 According to IATP:13
“The U.S. simply lacks essential rules that should curb the meat industry’s wors[t] practices that cost taxpayers millions in environmental and public health costs … With TTIP, the EU industry will also ensure that pending decisions on critical issues such as cloning and glyphosate are made with trade ‘competitiveness’ in mind and not the public interest.
A TTIP deal would basically hand over Europe’s animal farming sector on a silver platter to transnational meat corporations — through tariffs and quota expansions, but definitively through the sweeping de-regulatory changes the industry hopes to win through the accord.”
How to Find Truly Humanely Raised Food
At this point, it’s very difficult to tell from food labels alone whether the food you buy has been raised humanely or not. Even an organic label does not give you the whole picture. Unfortunately, unless you do a lot of research, it may be nearly impossible to sort the good from the bad.
That’s where The Cornucopia Institute’s organic egg report and scorecard, which took six years to produce, is invaluable. The scorecard is designed to help consumers and wholesale buyers identify truly exemplary organic brands in the supermarket coolers. It ranks 136 egg producers according to 28 organic criteria to help you find truly healthy, humanely-raised eggs.14According to the Cornucopia Institute:
“‘Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture’ will empower consumers and wholesale buyers who want to invest their food dollars to protect hard-working family farmers that are in danger of being forced off the land by a landslide of eggs from factory farms …
[As] consumers have become concerned about the humane treatment of animals, and are also seeking out eggs that are superior in flavor and nutrition, a number of national marketers have found success in distributing ‘pasture’-produced eggs.
‘There is a fair bit of overreach and the exploitation of this term is well covered in our report,’ Kastel explained. ‘The organic egg scorecard enables concerned consumers to select authentic brands delivering the very best quality eggs regardless of the hyperbole on the label’ …”
When shopping for food, it’s important to be informed regarding where that food was produced. This becomes possible when you shop at farmers markets, natural food co-ops and directly from the farm, if possible. If you take advantage of the farm-fresh sustainability that’s becoming more prevalent as people take control of what they’re consuming, you’ll realize many benefits.
You’ll know where the foods you and your family eat come from, ensure optimal nutrition and protect the health of future generations. Also remember that some local foods are grown using organic standards and humanely, even though they might not be certified organic. One of the benefits of getting your food straight from the farm via the resources below is that you can often meet the farmer and ask about animal welfare before you buy:
- Alternative Farming Systems Information Center, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA)
- Farmers Markets — A national listing of farmers markets.
- Local Harvest —This website will help you find farmers markets, family farms and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats and many other goodies.
- Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals — The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
- Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) — CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
- FoodRoutes — The FoodRoutes “Find Good Food” map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSAs and markets near you.