WASHINGTON, Sept. 28, 2016 - The organic sector is looking for a new rule beefing up animal welfare standards in the National Organic Program to further set its producers apart from traditional farming and ranching.

The final version of the proposed Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, expected to be released in the last months of the Obama administration, would close loopholes like provisions that allow chickens and turkeys to be raised on enclosed “porches” instead of on pastureland. It would also ban castration of the birds, as well as de-beaking and de-snooding (the removal of the flaps of flesh on a turkey’s forehead), among other things.

The organic industry has been pushing USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service for 10 years to tighten and improve animal welfare standards, Organic Trade Association (OTA) CEO Laura Batcha said at a breakfast meeting last week at the group’s annual All Things Organic Conference in Baltimore.

Animal welfare is becoming increasingly important to millennials, the largest organic-buying generation, and the industry sees the new rules as paramount to maintaining the allure of organic to a younger generation of shoppers.

“For us to stay current with the expectations of new, younger consumers, we’ve got to be able to meet those expectations,” Batcha said.

The days are long gone when the most significant aspect of organic food for consumers was a lack of pesticide residues, OTA officials agreed. It’s no longer just a matter of consumers worrying about the health of their families. Instead, consumers are increasingly concerned about the effects of farming on the environment, the overuse of antibiotics on animals, the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in food and the living conditions of food animals.

“There’s a broadening of appreciation of attributes,” Batcha said.

There’s also the constant fight to stay relevant among changing societal concerns and to compete with non-organic producers who are profiting from labeling their livestock products as GMO-free, cage-free and produced without antibiotics.

Plenty of third-party, non-government institutions like the Non GMO Project will certify products. Companies like Colorado-based NatureFed advertise the Non GMO Project verification as well as a label claiming “Certified Humane Raised and Handled.”

Some consumers will be satisfied with those kinds of labels, said OTA Farm Policy Director Nathaniel Lewis – especially if they are less expensive – but grocery buyers are becoming increasingly savvy about their food and most prefer “Organic” because it’s the highest standard.

“We want organic to be the gold standard for all the different process claims that are out there,” Lewis said in an interview. “We want it to be the non-GMO standard. We want it to be the preventative practices that eliminate the use of pesticides. We want it to be the standard that means humanely raised. We want it to be the standard to mean all these different things.”

For that to happen, though, consumers need to know that the federal government is certifying that chickens and turkeys have access to the true outdoors, including soil under their feet and the sky above them, Lewis said.

The poultry porches that the new rule would do away with are common now because the original organic regulations were not specific enough, OTA officials said. Some poultry operations started using them after a legal battle that began in 2002. USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service denied a company’s request to translate “outdoor access” as space in a screened-in porch for its egg-laying hens, but that denial was overturned.

Conforming to the provision of the proposed organic rule that requires chickens and turkeys to be able to walk around outdoors will not be easy, and not all farmers are in favor of it. Ferlin Martin, a Pennsylvania farmer, told USDA in a letter that the transition would just be too difficult.

“Achieving 100 percent outdoor access would be challenging for many farms to meet,” he wrote. “Barn and terrain layouts hinder the ability to achieve this without vast changes or purchase of additional land surrounding the barns.”

Lewis, meanwhile, said it is mostly the larger egg-laying operations that are using screened-in porches with roofs to fulfill the letter of the outdoor requirement in the National Organic Program, but are not really providing outdoor access.

Chad Headings, with Pete and Gerry’s LLC, said his family farm already allows chickens to roam outdoors and the new rule would create a more level playing field when it comes to competing with larger companies.

It does not seem right that a consumer buys organic eggs which they believe allow significant outdoor access for the chickens, but that actually have only porches outside the chicken house,” Headings said. “It is very difficult for my family, who cares deeply about our chickens, to compete with large complexes that do not allow their birds outside. I believe that the two square feet of outdoor access allows us to keep organic eggs affordable for consumers while also providing sufficient space for the chickens and credibility with consumers of organic products.”

Michael McCarty, an organic egg farmer in Wisconsin, agrees that strict regulations that do not allow for a loose translation of what the word “outdoors” means would benefit smaller producers.

“In the past 10 years, with lack of enforcement of existing rules from the USDA, we have seen the organic egg market increasingly co-opted by large-scale producers operating on the fringes of the law that have placed millions of hens into industrial complexes with only token access to the outdoors,” he said in a letter to USDA. “This was never the intent of the original law that required hens to have access to the outdoors.”

The proposed rule would give new operations one year to comply with the new requirements. For existing operations, they would have three years to make the changes needed so that chickens would always have access to the outdoors, and would have five years to create more room for birds to move about when they are kept indoors.

There are some very big names in agriculture that are firmly against the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule. The American Farm Bureau Federation, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, National Pork Producers Council and the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association jointly wrote a letter expressing their opposition.

Furthermore, 13 U.S. senators sent a letter to USDA expressing concerns about the rule. Chief among them was the fear that keeping birds outside would expose them to disease.

Fear that wild birds could infect chickens and turkeys with avian influenza is a common theme among the 6,675 letters submitted to USDA, but OTA’s Lewis said the concerns are unfounded.

Organic farmers are allowed to bring their chickens indoors for a wide variety of situations, including when a facility is located in a flyway where infected wild birds are believed to be traveling.

“There are no facts to support (the belief that) letting chickens outdoors spreads disease,” Lewis said.


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