– Organic sellout: USDA guts organic rules to protect mega-farms (Mercury News, Nov 6, 2013):
When most Americans think about organic meat or eggs, they picture animals on small farms, allowed to root in the soil, feel sun on their backs, and engage in their species-specific desires. What they don’t picture is tens of thousands of hens crammed into massive sheds with no access to soil and extremely limited outdoor access.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture just stamped its seal of approval on the latter scenario by refusing to implement its own advisory board’s animal welfare standards, which would have created a level playing field for hundreds of small organic farms by requiring animal welfare improvements from the five massive “organic” egg farms that provide the worst hen welfare.
The USDA’s decision doesn’t just violate our moral intuitions and the expectations of organic consumers; it also violates the department’s legal mandate in at least two distinct ways.
First, USDA is required by law to establish organic guidelines that “meet a consistent standard.” USDA’s Office of the Inspector General has twice found that animal welfare standards were applied inconsistently.
Second and more critically, it has failed to follow animal welfare recommendations of the National Organic Standards Board, which was set up to recommend “detailed regulations … to guide the implementation of the standards for livestock products.” After USDA’s inspector general found it was violating its legal mandate by ignoring its own advisory board in another context, the USDA pledged to work diligently to review and implement board recommendations. But the board stated unanimously that the current lack of regulations in these areas has “restricted the welfare of animals to a considerable degree” and noted that its recommendations were just a “first step” that would “not provide for a comprehensive review in favor of animal welfare.”
It will come as a shock to most organic consumers that there are not already legal requirements in these essential areas. The USDA is charged with developing standards, yet it announced without meaningful explanation that it will make no progress on any of it. The announcement was brief, citing only an “economic impact analysis” done by a third-party consulting firm and “other urgent priorities.”
The economic report considers only the poultry guidelines, which have been sitting on a shelf for 11 years, and indicates that implementing the board’s recommendations would involve no cost at all for the 504 small farms that are already in compliance with them and significant increases for only the five “organic” farms (not five percent–five farms) that are cramming together more than 100,000 hens.
These five “organic” mega-farms would simply have to allow the animals to have access to soil and sunlight and reduce stocking densities. It should have gone without saying that if these five out of more than 500 farms can’t meet the standards recommended by the board, they should be legally barred from using the organic seal.
Instead, USDA is allowing the worst producers to stamp “organic” on their products. It is encouraging a race to the animal welfare bottom by removing any incentive for better animal treatment.
USDA is also telling “organic” farmers and consumers that it doesn’t care about animal space allowances, bedding and environmental concerns, environmental enrichment, pain relief for mutilations — or the enforcement of any of it.
And it’s doing all that in violation of its legal mandate.
Something stinks in the organic hen house. It’s the hen house regulators.
Bruce Friedrich is senior advocacy director for Farm Sanctuary, a national farm animal protection organization. He wrote this for this newspaper.