USDA Kills Rule For Organic Farms That Would Ensure Animals Could Go Outside

The rule would have put in place a variety of new animal welfare standards for farms producing certified organic meat, milk and egg.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday that it will withdraw an Obama-era rule that would have set new animal welfare standards for farmers producing meat, milk and eggs labeled as USDA organic.

The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule was finalized in January 2017, and was set to take effect in May. Some of the stipulations of the rule included:

  • Animals would have daily access to the outdoors, and “enclosed porches” would not qualify as outdoor access.

  • Certain practices would be prohibited, including de-beaking and forced molting of chickens and tail-docking of cattle (removing their tails).

  • Chickens that produce eggs would be entitled to about 1 to 2 square feet of space per bird, depending on the size of the bird and the type of housing.

Consumers may think the term “organic” means “humanely raised,” but that’s often not the reality. For instance, many certified organic eggs actually come from hens jam-packed into windowless barns.

But the USDA said the new standards would be outside of the department’s statutory authority ― and on top of that, it said they’re unnecessary.

“The existing robust organic livestock and poultry regulations are effective,” USDA Marketing and Regulatory Program Undersecretary Greg Ibach said in a press release about the decision.

Chickens in a barn at a certified organic egg farm in Illinois.
Chickens in a barn at a certified organic egg farm in Illinois.
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), head of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said in a statement that the rule “would have jeopardized the livelihood of organic livestock and poultry producers.”

But that’s not how many organic farmers see it. Some say they already comply with the standards that the OLPP would have mandated for everyone, and that withdrawing the rule unfairly benefits large-scale operations that are inclined to cut corners.

The Organic Trade Association called not moving forward with the rule an “unconscionable action” and said the organic industry and general public mostly support the measure.

The USDA itself said in January that organic trade groups and “smaller-scale organic farmers” had “generally expressed support” for the OLPP. The department also noted that during an open comment period when the rule was proposed, a majority of letters submitted to the department were in favor — and largely came from “individuals associated with animal welfare and consumer organizations.”

Animal welfare groups also saw the decision as a blow.

“The USDA’s withdrawal of the OLPP is a violation of the public trust that reverses the nearly two decades of collaboration and feedback from farmers and consumers that led to this groundbreaking rule,” Matt Bershadker, the president of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said in a statement. “Millions of animals will continue to suffer each year because of the USDA’s abdication of its duty to enforce meaningful organic animal welfare standards.”

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