WASHINGTON, April 7, 2016 – Animal welfare standards for organic livestock and poultry production can be expected soon, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service announced on Thursday.

The goal of the proposed rule, about to be published in the Federal Register, is to align consumer expectations with actual organic production, AMS Deputy Administrator Miles McEvoy said on a conference call. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) completed recommendations for what the standards should look like in 2011. McEvoy said the proposed rule “aligns closely” with those recommendations.

One of the biggest points of contention addressed in the proposed rule is access to the outdoors in poultry production. Under the proposed rule, poultry must have year-round access to an outdoor area “that is at least 50 percent soil cover.” The outdoor areas must include clean drinking water, have access to sunlight and shade, and “must have suitable enrichment to entice birds to go outside,” McEvoy said. Outdoor shaded areas attached to buildings such as porches would not qualify for the requirement. The indoor component of poultry housing also must have sufficient sunlight on sunny days.

McEvoy also noted that the proposal includes standards dealing with biosecurity concerns that were developed in consultation with staff with USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

In addition, the proposal addresses physical alterations to animals such as altering of chicken beaks and cattle and hog tails. The standards specify that any alterations “must be performed on livestock at a reasonably young age, with minimal stress and pain and by a competent person.”

The proposed rule specifically bans de-beaking of chickens and turkeys and tail docking of cattle and sheep. Pigs’ tails can be docked but docking should not be “routinely used,” and the practice must include documentation that “alternative methods” to prevent the animals from biting each other’s tails failed.

The standards would require group housing for pigs with the exception of boars and pigs with documented instances of aggression or in a state of recovery from illness. However, sows would be allowed to be individually housed during farrowing and suckling.

The proposed rule also addresses – among other things – transport and slaughter conditions for organic production. Animals that are sick, injured, weak, disabled, blind, or lame cannot be transported for sale or slaughter and must be either treated or euthanized. It also calls for “adequate and season-appropriate” ventilation during transit as well as bedding of organically produced roughage on trailer floors and in holding pens. Poultry crates are exempt from the organic requirement.

Organic Trade Association CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha said that animal welfare “has always been a high priority for organic producers,” but she’s glad to see USDA continue to implement standards.

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“Ensuring that the high expectations consumers have for organic foods are met preserves the organic seal’s reputation as the gold standard for agricultural production practices,” Batcha said in a statement. “OTA is pleased that USDA is moving forward.”

Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, said that NCC will “review the proposed rule in its entirety in the near future and work with our members who produce organic chicken to provide comments to the agency, as necessary.” Super also noted that both organic and traditional chicken producers “treat their birds humanely to ensure their health and wellbeing.”

Once the proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, AMS will accept comments for 60 days. The agency is also hosting a webinar on the proposed standards next week.


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