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New organic animal welfare standards are good for farmers and consumers

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 Feburary Issue Newsletter

By National Organic Coalition

 Consumers who choose to buy organic eggs, poultry, and meat expect organic farmers to raise their animals in the healthiest conditions possible – to provide access to the outdoors, space to move around, and freedom to exhibit their natural behaviors. And farmers and ranchers who choose to follow organic standards expect a level playing field. Right now, that is not the case.

“Most organic livestock and poultry operations already adhere to high standards. But they are being undercut economically because of loopholes in the organic standards that allow a few operations to deny meaningful outdoor access to animals,” says Abby Youngblood, executive director at the National Organic Coalition.

The new Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule will level the playing field and ensure that all poultry and eggs sold as organic meet the high standards that consumers expect. The new rules, which are available today in the federal register, represent more than a decade of work to clarify and improve animal welfare standards in organic. They incorporate input from thousands of stakeholders as well as recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), a stakeholder board that advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture.  NOSB membership, by law, includes organic farmers, handlers, certifiers, environmental/conservation specialists, consumer representatives, and scientists.  

“Because the NOSB and organic community have consistently called for meaningful outdoor access for poultry dating back to 1998, it is disingenuous for poultry operations that do not meet these requirements to claim that they have been taken by surprise,” says Youngblood. Operations that do not currently meet the standards will have ample time - up to five years - to comply with the new standards.

Opponents of the rules claim that providing outdoor access to poultry will harm chickens or spread disease. In reality, scientific studies indicate that higher stocking densities and indoor confinement are risk factors for food safety and animal health problems. Strengthening organic standards to decrease stocking densities and provide greater access to the outdoors will contribute to animal health and prevent future disease outbreaks.

Furthermore, all existing USDA and FDA health and safety rules will remain in place once the new standards are implemented.

Opponents of the rule claim that hens will be more vulnerable to predators with the new rules. Since most organic producers already provide outdoor access and use a variety of practices to protect birds from predators such as overhead netting and electric fencing, these arguments are overstated. According to the USDA, “the proposed rule is based on substantial public input, including from producers, on the practices that would improve the overall quality of life for birds.”

The lack of consistency in the organic standards hurts both consumer and producer trust in the organic label. Strong welfare standards are critical to preserving trust in the organic label and represent a significant step forward.

About the National Organic Coalition: The National Organic Coalition (NOC) is a national alliance of organizations working to provide a "Washington voice" for farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, consumers and industry members involved in organic agriculture. NOC seeks to advance organic food and agriculture and ensure a united voice for organic integrity, which means strong, enforceable, and continuously improved standards to maximize the multiple health, environmental, and economic benefits that only organic agriculture affords. The coalition works to assure that policies are fair, equitable, and encourage diversity of participation and access.

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