The Trump administration ruled on Friday that livestock deemed “USDA Organic” need not be treated any more humanely than the animals in conventional farming.
The decision reverses years of policy at the Agriculture Department, which, through the “USDA Organic” label, dictates what may be sold as “organic” food in the United States.
For years, the USDA had been developing organic requirements guaranteeing animals minimums of space, light and access to the outside. Many consumers expect that products bearing the “USDA Organic” label come from a farm with higher animal welfare standards.
But with the new administration, the USDA has changed tack, arguing that the 1990 law creating the “USDA Organic” label does not allow “broadly prescriptive, stand-alone animal welfare regulations.” In effect, the new approach suggests that “organic” farmers need not treat their animals any better than conventional ones do.
This decision “is going to be destructive to the whole organic field,” said Jesse Laflamme, co-owner and chief executive at Pete and Gerry's Organics, an egg company that requires farmers to meet higher standards. “What's so upsetting is that there is such a gap between what organic consumers expect and what these factory farms are producing.”
The immediate reason for the USDA's shift on animal welfare was a proposed rule, more than seven years in gestation, that would have required “organic” egg farms to give hens at least a square foot of space inside as well as access to the outdoors. The rule would have prohibited the large-scale “organic” egg farms that The Washington Post wrote about in July, in which 180,000 birds were kept in a barn, at a density of three per square foot of floor space, and never allowed to set foot outside.
Consumers pay more for organic eggs, and they expect that those eggs are produced more humanely than conventional eggs. According to a March survey by Consumer Reports, more than 80 percent of consumers who regularly buy organic products say it is important that organic eggs come from chickens that are allowed outside.