USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service has proposed long-awaited regulations covering animal welfare for organic producers that largely track changes made in a rule issued just before President Barack Obama left office, ruling out the use of screened-in porches as outdoor access for poultry.

The organic industry had been urging the Biden administration to release a proposal after the Trump-era USDA withdrew a final rule issued just before the end of the Obama administration.

The proposal looks to be largely similar to the Jan. 19, 2017, rule issued by the Obama USDA, including the proposed prohibition on porches that do not allow access to the outdoors.

Outdoor space requirements would vary by species. For example, half of the outdoor space for bird species would have to be soil-based, with the soil “maximally covered with vegetation appropriate to the specific local conditions. 

“Depending on the outdoor space and local conditions, a producer could rotate poultry around outdoor areas to allow vegetation to recover, or a producer might need to periodically reseed an outdoor area,” AMS said. Producers would need to maintain vegetative cover "in a manner that would not provide harborage for rodents and other pests."

In a statement, the Organic Trade Association said the proposal “marks the first significant movement on organic animal welfare in years; we hope that it also signals a willingness on behalf of USDA to listen to the organic industry and act swiftly to implement these common-sense reforms. Organic producers and their animals have waited long enough, it’s time for USDA to act.”

USDA will accept comments for 60 days and hold a listening session Aug. 19.

The proposal includes separate standards for poultry and for ruminants and swine. For birds, “The proposed livestock living standards would set maximum indoor and outdoor stocking densities to ensure [they] have sufficient space to engage in natural behaviors,” AMS said.

AMS is seeking comments on how soon the proposed changes should take effect: “one year for all proposed changes, except for the indoor space requirements for broiler operations and the outdoor space requirements for layer operations, [or] three years for the indoor space requirements for broilers,” and three different options for layer operations, including as long as 15 years.

The proposal “elaborates on the current requirements for year-round access to the outdoors, fresh air, and direct sunlight by including requirements for outdoor space (per bird), establishing thresholds for ammonia gas, and requiring doors in poultry houses to ensure all birds may access the outdoors,” AMS said.

For organic poultry production specifically, the proposal lays out “general principles” requiring that such operations “establish and maintain living conditions that accommodate the wellbeing and natural behaviors of the birds. These living conditions include: year-round access to the outdoors, soil, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, direct sunlight, clean water for drinking, materials for dust bathing, and adequate space to escape aggressive behaviors. The living conditions provided should be appropriate to the species, its stage of life, the climate, and the environment.”

AMS said it believes a “market failure exists in the organic label. Specifically, consumers have varying understanding of the degree to which the organic label requires indoor/outdoor space, health, and welfare provisions for animals used in organic production.”

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“The various production practices used to meet requirements like outdoor access have allowed producers that use lower-cost and less-stringent practices to benefit from the same organic labeling and premium as producers than use more costly or robust practices,” AMS said.

Other proposed conditions:

  • “Outdoor areas would need to be maintained in a manner that maintains or improves natural resources, including soil and water quality.”
  • “Organic livestock and handling operations may use ritual slaughter to convert their livestock to meat or poultry without loss of organic status.”
  • A proposed amendment to current regulations “specifies that the sufficiency of the feed ration be demonstrated by appropriate body condition of the livestock. Livestock producers would be required to monitor their animals to ensure body condition is being maintained.”
  • “Physical alterations [of livestock] may only be performed for an animal’s welfare, identification, or safety. Alterations must be done at a reasonably young age with minimal pain or stress to the animal and may only be performed by an individual who can competently perform the procedure. Competency in performing physical alterations may be demonstrated by appropriate training or experience of the individual.”
  • “Needle teeth clipping and tail docking in pigs may only be performed in response to documented animal welfare reasons after alternative steps to prevent harm fail. Teeth clipping, if performed, is limited to the top third of each needle tooth.”
  • Based on 2011 National Organic Standards Board recommendations, “the following physical alterations to avian species would be prohibited: de-beaking, de-snooding, caponization, dubbing, toe clipping of chickens, toe clipping of turkeys unless with infrared at hatchery, and beak clipping after 10 days of age.”
  • “Specific physical alterations to mammalian species would be prohibited: tail docking of cattle, wattling of cattle, face branding of cattle, tail docking of sheep shorter than the distal end of the caudal fold, and mulesing of sheep.”
  • One change in current regs “would require organic producers to actively monitor and document lameness within the herd or flock.”

AMS also has proposed allowing synthetic medications to be used “to alleviate pain or suffering. In addition, synthetic medications allowed under §205.603 may be administered when preventive practices and veterinary biologics are inadequate to prevent sickness.” The agency also said it was proposing to remove a requirement that all ruminant livestock must be able to feed simultaneously.

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