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National Organic Program issues new animal welfare proposal Long-awaited draft will create sweeping changes in organic livestock industry

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 May Issue Newsletter

By Dan Bensonoff

This organic poultry house would be spacious enough under the new rules

For those of us who are concerned about the integrity of the organic seal, the National Organic Program’s (NOP) recent announcement that they have issued a proposed rule to define animal welfare standards was a cause for celebration. Should the proposed rule stand as is, gone will be the day of poultry house “porches” and other semblances of outdoor access. Controversial physical alterations such as poultry de-beaking and cattle tail-docking will also be prohibited.

Indeed, the proposed rules will re-define welfare standards for the entire lifespan of an animal’s life – from gestation to housing to slaughter. Many of the rules included within the new proposal were initially recommended by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) - the citizen advisory board that consults the NOP in rulemaking - as early as 2002, after years of complaints that many organic livestock farms were only nominally living up to such organic livestock standards as outdoor access and “allowing animals to express their natural behavior.” Though well principled, those existing standards have not been well defined and are often exploited. Given that these new rules would cost the organic livestock industry between $123 million and $313 million over a 13 year period, we can expect to hear fierce debate in the weeks and months to come.

Much of that financial expense is due to changes in poultry stocking densities and what exactly is meant by “outdoor access”. Until this rule came out, there was nothing that limited farmers from packing poultry into houses and multi-story aviaries. Broadly speaking, the new rule says, “all birds must be able to move freely, and engage in natural behaviors.” But that is further defined into lbs of bird/ sq ft, which varies from 2.25 lbs/ sq. ft. to 4.5 lbs/ sq. ft. depending on the type of housing (see figure 1).

These rules go much further in outlining housing requirements. Here is a short list of some other proposed changes to housing:

  • All birds must have access to at least 6” of perch space
  • Ventilation needs to be provided to keep ammonia levels below 25 ppm
  • Housing must be open to some natural sunlight (enough for an inspector to read comfortably)
  • All birds must have access to scratch areas inside
  • There need to be enough exits spaced around the house to encourage birds to go outside. Exits must allow for more than one bird to pass through at a time and all birds should be able to shuffle out within an hour.

This rule will do away with those porchesOnce the birds make it through those wide doors, they’ll encounter some other big changes. No longer will paved or platformed areas be counted as pasture... well, sort of. The new rule states that at least 50% of outdoor area must be soil, meaning the rest can be gravel or concrete. Still, that is a major improvement over the existing rules that allow for off-ground “porches” to be considered outdoor space. And these rules also add that outdoor space must have “suitable enrichment to entice birds to go outside,” meaning access to shade, dust, vegetation, water and other necessities for poultry happiness. Unfortunately, if poultry farmers choose to stock these outdoor areas at maximum capacity (which many will), those birds will only have about two square feet for themselves. That’s a far cry from the 43 sq. ft./ bird minimum that’s maintained under European Union organic standards. But, somehow, that’s still enough to satisfy many of the most widely-used animal welfare certification programs, including Certified Humane.

Though the rule does not meet all the standards that organic watchdogs were hoping for, it is clear that in issuing these rules the National Organic Program is making an attempt to level the playing field between large (the USDA defines a “large producer” as $15 million or more in annual sales for layer operations, and $750,000 or more for a large broiler operation) and smaller producers. Economically speaking, these rules will indubitably affect the big guys more forcefully. Many of them will have to build new housing during this rule’s 5-year implementation period. Add to that the losses in stocking density and we’re looking at losses of roughly $380,000 per year for large layer operations and $6,350 for smaller layer operations. So it’s no wonder that mega-farms such as Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, which produces 42 million dozen eggs per year, are critical of the new proposal; they claim that in order to comply with the new rules they “would have to remove about 85 percent of the birds from [their] houses because [they] don't have the land to allow them to go outside," a move that would “likely put his company out of the organic egg business.”

Yet, even though these rules will improve welfare for many millions of animals within high-density systems, one has to wonder whether they go far enough. Sure, poultry will now have the opportunity to turn around unhindered, but they may still be have limited access to true pasture (not gravel or asphalt) since there are no specific requirements for vegetative cover for poultry, contrary to the NOSB’s recommendation that outdoor areas “be soil-based and have at least 50% vegetative cover.”

Clearly, there’s work to do to ensure these standards live up to organic principles and consumer expectations for what the organic seal stands for. We encourage all of our members, and particularly those who own or operate a livestock farm, to submit their comments on the proposed rules.

The deadline for comments is June 13, 2016. You can read the entirety of the proposed rules and submit your comments here: https://federalregister.gov/a/2016-08023

NOFA/Mass will also be submitting comments on behalf of our members. If you would like to be involved in that process, please submit your comments to me by email at dan@nofamass.org.

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