Should 'USDA Organic' seal require better animal welfare standards?

The farm industry is divided

Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT

Free-range chickens eat at a farm in Bluffton, Ga. They aren’t confined and are allowed to walk around as they please.
Atlanta Journal-Constitution/MCT Free-range chickens eat at a farm in Bluffton, Ga. They aren’t confined and are allowed to walk around as they please.

A Trump administration decision aimed at scrapping higher animal welfare standards for organic poultry and meats has created a rift in the farm industry.

At issue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has withdrawn its support for a rule that would have, among other things, required more outdoor space for hens on organic egg farms.

The rule would have closed a loophole in the current regulations that allows large poultry farms to use screened-in porches as outdoor access. It also would have prohibited some practices such as “tail docking,” in which a cow’s tail is partially removed.

The rule was adopted two days before former president Barack Obama left office, in January 2017. But Trump’s Agriculture Department called for further review, saying the rule exceeded its statutory authority.

Last week, a public comment period ended with more than 47,000 comments received by the USDA, and all but a few favoring the changes that would require “USDA Certified Organic” meat and poultry producers to abide by stricter animal welfare standards.

Still, large farm groups said the proposed changes went too far in dictating how farmers must treat their livestock, and the Agriculture Department seemed to agree.

“With USDA’s wise decision to withdraw this rule, organic livestock and poultry producers can rest assured that they will not be forced out of business by another costly and burdensome regulation,” Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said in a statement.

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“By withdrawing this rule, the Trump administration is again demonstrating its commitment to deregulate rural America,” Roberts said.

Yet some of the rule’s strongest supporters are in the $43 billion organic food industry.

Consumers expect higher animal welfare standards from organic agriculture, said John Brunnquell, founder and president of Egg Innovations, a network of 65 farms in five states and headquartered in Warsaw, Ind.

“This is about consumer confidence,” Brunnquell said, adding that most people who buy organic eggs believe the chickens have access to the outdoors, fresh air, sunshine and a natural diet of things such as bugs and worms.

Much of the debate has been centered on organic poultry and eggs.

“People buy organic because they think these birds are living a better life, and that they’re not in a cage, but some of these aviary systems are nothing more than glorified cages,” said Mark Kastel, director of the Cornucopia Institute, which closely follows the organic industry.

“The USDA has never enforced language in its rules that says all organic livestock must have access to the outdoors,” Kastel said.

The U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, based in Tucker, Ga., did not return Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls asking about its position on the organic rule.

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