The USDA has released the new requirements for animal welfare within organic systems. With large retailers like Walmart and McDonalds modifying their requirements for stricter animal welfare standards, the federal government has weighed in in order to better define what organic really means. This is by no means a new movement and the federal paperwork frequently references guidelines that are over 20 years old. The real genesis of these proposals are, like most regulations, fueled by consumer demands. Miles McEvoy, deputy administrator of the USDA’s organic program, said in an interview that American’s “expect organic livestock to spend a considerable amount of their life outside during appropriate weather conditions, so we proposed to codify that in a measurable way.”
Here are some of the highlights of the 100 plus page document. The proposed rules lay out for the first time minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for organic chickens, with many egg-laying hens needing the equivalent of 2 square feet per bird both inside and outside. The outdoor space cannot have a permanent roof and the flooring must be at least half soil, so that birds can follow their instinctual scratching, pecking and dust-bathing behavior. Birds would have to be encouraged to go outside at a young age, and there would need to be ample room for them to exit the barn, according to the USDA.
This particular regulation is dynamic in that it defines the square footage allotment in pounds of poultry instead of the number of animals to allow the regulations to apply to all different types of poultry. Simply put, 10 pound broilers would need 2 square feet, while 30 pound turkeys would require 6 square feet per animal.
The new requirements also ban practices such as debeaking poultry, docking cattle and hog tails, caponing roosters, and new standards for transportation and euthanasia of animals. These regulations are certainly a step in the right direction and closer to what our neighbors have adopted in Europe and Canada. It is obvious that many of the current organic producers are not going to be in compliance with these new rules and major structural changes may be required to meet the new standards. At this point and time the public has 60 days to officially comment on the rule changes before the implementation begins over the next year.
I feel that there is an obvious divide between all types of livestock farms, organic or not. The best way to ensure that the product you are getting is up to your personal standards is to speak with the farmer, visit the property, and engage and participate with your personal food chain. I think that many of us would not feel as comfortable supporting certain industries if we knew how they worked, and it is that obfuscation that keeps them in business. Knowledge is power, power is understanding, happy animals make healthy products.