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USDA proposes livestock welfare rules for organic farms

More than four years after the Trump administration nixed the idea, the Biden administration proposed a broad-ranging set of animal welfare rules for organic farms. Producers already are required to provide their animals with year-round access to the outdoors and enough room to stretch their limbs. Agriculture Undersecretary Jenny Moffit said on Friday the proposed regulation would “establish and clarify clear standards for organic livestock and poultry production.”

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) said the regulation was “the first significant movement on organic animal welfare in years” and that it would standardize practices such as living conditions; some poultry farms say small enclosed “porches” satisfy the requirement for outdoor access while others have wide doorways to large pasture areas. The Humane Society Legislative Fund said the rules would be “a landmark federal regulation” with steps that included a ban on sow crates and tail docking of cattle and provisions for meaningful access to the outdoors for poultry.

Organic farmers distinguish their meat, milk and eggs from conventionally raised animals by saying they have superior standards for treatment of livestock. Consumers have been willing to pay a premium for organic foods. Supermarket sales of organic foods reached $57.5 billion in 2021, more than double the sales total of a decade earlier, says the OTA.

The Center for Food Safety said the proposal “appears to fully reinstate the vital requirements” of the regulation proposed in the final days of the Obama era and withdrawn in early 2018 by the Trump administration. In particular, it said, the proposed rule would end “the so-called ‘porches’ that allowed some producers to factory-farm their poultry. Porches are not organic.”

Overall, the proposal would require more space indoors for broilers and increased outdoor access for egg-laying hens. The USDA said indoor space would be determined by pounds of poultry per square foot. Separate housing standards were proposed for cattle, hogs and sheep.

When it withdrew the organic livestock rule in 2018, the Trump administration said it lacked the authority to enforce humane treatment rules on organic farms, even though the USDA had spent a decade working on the rules.

The USDA said it would conduct an online listening session on Aug. 19. There will be a 60-day comment period on the proposed rule, which is scheduled to appear in the Federal Register on Tuesday.

To read an unpublished version of the proposed rule, click here.

Produced with FERN, non-profit reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.
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