Definition of Organic Meat Revised to Reflect Animal Welfare Considerations

New rules will include new requirements for organic livestock farmers

Definition of Organic Meat Revised to Reflect Animal Welfare Considerations
Image: Pixabay
January 19, 2017

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is revising its criteria for meat earning an "Organic" label to include considerations of animal welfare.

The old rules restricted what the animals could be fed and when they could receive antibiotics.

Organic livestock farmers will face new requirements under the new rules. For example, the animals must have access to outdoor areas with grass or at least soil (no parking lots) at least once per day, and they also have to have ready access to the outdoors. Enclosed porches do not meet this requirement. However, the rule does make allowance for exceptions at those times when it is best for the animal to stay inside temporarily, e.g. extreme weather conditions.

The rules for poultry specify minimum space requirements. They also limit the amount of ammonia that can be present in the air indoors and how much artificial light the animals can be exposed to.

Many physical alterations to the animals are now prohibited, including de-beaking chickens and docking cow tails.

The new rules also include mandatory guidelines for transporting animals to sale or slaughter, as well as for providing humane treatment at the point of slaughter.

Only those products that seek the USDA's "Organic" designation are affected by the new requirements.

Supporters of the rule argue that the new requirements bring the designation up to shoppers' expected standards.

"The overwhelming majority of consumers believe that the organic label represents extremely high standards and this rule finally meets those standards for animal welfare," said Jean Halloran, Director of Food Policy Initiatives for Consumers Union.

Meanwhile, opponents are decrying the revision as a "midnight regulation" that is being dropped onto the industry during the final week of President Obama's administration.

However, that claim does not take into account the fact that the revision process started almost one year ago when the department issued its proposed draft of the rule in April 2016.

"Animal production practices have nothing to do with the concept of 'organic,'" writes John Weber, president of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), which is leading the campaign against the changes.

Weber argues that the law shrinks, rather than expanding, livestock welfare considerations by focusing only on what they eat and which drugs they are given.

Although the Organic Food Product Act does address these two items explicitly, it also allows for future changes.

"The National Organic Standards Board shall recommend to the Secretary standards in addition to [those practices specifically prohibited by this law] for the care of livestock to ensure that such livestock is organically produced," reads the original law.

The NPPC is planning to urge the incoming Trump administration, as well as the industry-friendly GOP-majority Congress, to repeal the rule. Consumer groups call for it to be left in place.

"Congress should not give special treatment to livestock companies who might want to charge higher prices for organic meat, poultry, dairy and eggs without having to actually produce those foods the way consumers expect," says Halloran.