Good Changes in the Organic Standard -- But We Want More

When you hear the words "Certified Organic," do they conjure visions of small, biodiverse farms tended by fresh-faced women and men with beards and/or man-buns who live in harmony with the land? Animals roaming freely on green grass?

Or do you picture monocropped acre after monocropped acre harvested by underpaid and poorly treated workers and concentrated animal feeding operations?

I'm happy to report that the USDA has proposed changes to the definition of Certified Organic that get that label closer to the former. However, we've still got a long way to go to completely eradicate the reality is actually the latter.

Highlights of the USDA's proposed new animal welfare standards for organic chicken and meat include:

  • Outdoor access is required year-round for all animals and must include: soil cover, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight. Porches and other structures attached to the indoor living space, including roofed areas attached to the building, will no longer qualify.
  • Sufficient space and freedom for animals to fully lie down, turn around, stand up, stretch limbs without touching other animals or the sides of the enclosure, express normal patterns of behavior are all required.
  • For poultry raised indoors, natural lighting must be sufficient for an inspector to easily read on sunny days.
  • Debeaking of hens and tail docking of dairy cows are banned, along with other practices.
  • Guidelines will be set for how animals are transported for sale or slaughter.

This is great news all around. These changes will come as a surprise to a lot of people who thought that "organic" already meant animals were treated well. The current standards are very clear about which chemicals are forbidden for crops; they are vague in many areas including animal treatment, aside from requiring organic feed and prohibiting antibiotic use. That's why many Certified Organic producers of meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs have long sought additional third-party animal welfare certifications to ensure that customers can feel certain animals have been treated humanely -- a costly and sometimes redundant process, especially for smaller farmers and ranchers. These proposed standards will bring the reality in line with consumers' imaginations and should help level the playing field for producers.

Some organic farmers will continue to surpass the baseline set by the USDA -- they call themselves "beyond organic." And, to be fair, the pioneers who started this movement in the '70s had a lot more in mind than what the government actually settled on by the time standards were set.

The other major misconception that consumers of Certified Organic products have -- and will still have -- is that the label means anything when it comes to workers. It's true that farmworkers on an organic farm are not exposed to the same harmful chemicals used in conventional farming, so in that sense, organic is somewhat better for the workers, too. But that's as far as it goes. There are no standards for wages, working conditions, or workday length -- yet. Now that the National Organics Standards Board is addressing humane treatment of farm animals, the USDA should next start talking to organizations such as the Equitable Food Initiative and The Fair Food Program and propose new standards for the people working on these farms.

In the meantime, though, the USDA is showing us that the definition of Certified Organic can and will be expanded. And we can get involved: the agency is taking comments through June 13. They do consider these prior to issuing their final ruling. This link tells you how to register your comments. It's a great opportunity to suggest that farmworkers be next on the to-do list.

While the old saying is "Quit while you're ahead," we aren't ahead yet. We've got more work to do.