Animal living conditions and well-being have long been a key component of organic livestock production systems, including allowing animals to exhibit their natural behaviors and have access to their natural diets. However, inconsistencies in organic livestock and poultry production standards have emerged in recent times, causing confusion in the organic marketplace and jeopardizing the integrity of the organic label. Hence the organic community has been working to provide greater clarity through a National Organic Program rulemaking process.
The long-awaited final Organic Animal Welfare rule was published on President Obama’s last day in office, with an effective date of March 20, 2017. On his first day in office, President Trump has delayed all final rules that are not yet effective for 60 days, which in this particular case just adds one day to the effective date of the rule. However, during those 60 days, the new Administration potentially could take further action to further delay the implementation date or even start the process of rescinding the rule.
While the freeze is in place and the new Administration reviews the rule, we thought we would take a deeper look at what exactly the final rule does and how it differs from the proposed rule.
What Does the Rule Say?
The Organic Animal Welfare rule’s origins going back to the 1990 passage of the Organic Food Production Standards Act and its mandate to ensure consistent and uniform standards for organic production. Despite some tweaks, the final rule hues closely to the proposed rule released in April 2016. The final rule covers the treatment, housing, and transport of several species of livestock and poultry.
The rule sets out requirements for organic animals to have daily access to the outdoors, specifically areas that are at least partially soil or covered in vegetation. Concrete pads and covered, fenced porches will not count. The rule clarifies that the access must be meaningful and that doors to the outside are accessible.
It specifies minimums for space, air quality, light, and enrichments for poultry and livestock. It also specifies how and when producers can confine animals indoors including for their health and safety. These exceptions have been put in place to address animal disease and weather-related welfare concerns.
Lastly, the final rule provides clarifications on what physical alterations are banned and on transport and slaughter requirements for livestock and poultry to ensure the health and welfare of the animals and maintain the integrity of the organic label.
For most organic producers, the new rule becomes mandatory a year after its effective date. Organic egg and broiler producers, however, would have until 2020 or 2022 to comply depending when they were certified as organic.
General Treatment Standards
This part of the rule outlines what physical alterations are allowed and those that are banned. The banned lists include “prohibited physical alterations include de-beaking of birds, docking of cows’ tails, de-snooding, dubbing, and face branding of cattle, and mulesing of sheep.”
Those allowed on a non-routine basis include “needle teeth clipping in pigs and tail docking in pigs.” Additionally, beaks may not be clipped after 10 days of age, sheep tails may only be docked to the distal end of the caudal fold, and turkey toe trimming must be done with infra-red at the hatchery.”
All of these alterations must be completed by a “competent” person and must be done in a way that minimizes pain subject to the other standards of the rule.
Poultry Welfare Standards
The final rule for poultry (avian rule) includes several clarifications on the standards for organic broiler and laying hen production. The main component of the final rule is the indoor and outdoor space requirements. For outdoor space, the rule requires there be one square foot of outdoor space for every 2.25 pounds for layers and 5 pounds for broilers.
There are different standards for indoors spaces included in the final rule. These space allocations are based on animal and housing type.
- Mobile housing – 4.5 lbs./square foot
- Aviary housing – 4.5 lbs./square foot
- Slatted/mesh flooring housing –3.75 lbs./square foot
- Floor litter housing – 3.0 lbs./square foot
- Other housing – 2.25 lbs./square foot
- Pullets – 3.0 lbs./square foot
- Broilers – 5.0 lbs./square foot
The rule does not specify indoor or outdoor standards for other species such as turkeys and ducks, but they may be set after further consultation with the National Organic Standards Board.
The rule requires that avian species have access to the outdoors when the temperature is between 40-90 degrees, 50 percent of the outdoor area must be soil (vegetation or otherwise), and the outdoor area must be protected from rodents and other pests. Enclosed porches (roofs, no soil access, and fenced) are not adequate. However, in response to comments, the final rule was changed to allow shade roofs connected to the main barn structure. The proposed rule would not have allowed these structures to count as part of the outdoor area.
To ensure that all birds actually have the ability to access the outdoors, there must be sufficient access to ensure that all birds in the structure can reach the outdoors within one hour.
The rule includes several parts related to indoor conditions in order to ensure that birds can express their natural behavior. The rule sets standards for natural light (a human is able to read), chicken house air quality (ammonia target of 10 ppm), and for supplemental light (16 hours a day).
It also includes requirements for perches and dust bathing areas and limits slatted floors to not more than 69 percent of the floor area.
The main requirements of this part of the rule for swine are that cages for piglets are not allowed, older pigs must be kept in group housing, and pigs must be provided rooting material. Dairy calves may continue to be kept in individual pens but for no longer than 6 months. The pens must also be positioned near each other.
The rule includes a requirement that all mammals in organic operations (cows and pigs) be able to have space and freedom to turn around, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.
A requirement in the proposed rule for the ability to express “full lateral recumbency” was dropped in the final rule based on comments from the dairy industry, which noted it might impact the ability to use free stall barns.
As well, the proposed requirement of 50 percent soil for outdoor space for mammals year-round was dropped due to comments that it may not be possible to maintain vegetation year round in some parts of the country. Outdoor access for all mammals year round remains in the final rule, and existing rules about access to pasture during the appropriate season are unaffected.
Processing, Transport, and Treatment
This part of the rule defines appropriate ways to euthanize animals and to provide medical treatment and care. The final rule prohibits euthanization by manual blows or suffocation. As well, it allows a waiver to the outdoor access requirements when there is a concern about a regional disease outbreak in order to protect the health of the animals. The final rule did remove a requirement for a documented occurrence of the disease in the area.
The rule also clarifies that forced molting to cause continued egg production is not allowed and that hormones are never allowed to be given to animals in organic production.
The transport provisions of the final rule require that the animals other than chickens be provided bedding material and that animals be provided food and water if the transport time exceeds 12 hours. Animals that are non-ambulatory cannot be transported and must be treated or euthanized.
As for slaughter, the rule clarifies that all other applicable laws apply to the organic processing of animals. For small poultry operations, not covered by other laws, it specifies several proper protocols for the slaughter of chickens including rendering the chickens insensitive to pain before scalding, a ban on shackling without stunning, and an allowing small processors without automated systems to slaughter birds without stunning
What Happens Now?
In the immediate short term, the implementation of this rule has been delayed 60 days by a White House memorandum issued on Inauguration Day. That memorandum stated that all rules that have been published but that had not gone final are delayed by 60 days to allow the new Trump Administration time to review them. However, since this rule was issued on President’s Obama’s last day in office and had a 60 day implementation period, the rule’s implementation date changes by just one day, to March 21. During this intervening time, however, the new Administration could take further action to delay implementation or rescind the rule for further examination.
Opposition to the rule has focused primarily on the poultry provisions. A few of the largest organic egg producers who have made large infrastructure investments that were not consistent with the organic industry’s commitment to strong animal welfare standards object to the rule and are strongly resisting coming into compliance. The opponents have gotten the attention of several agricultural leaders in Congress, members who could seek legislative ways to upend the rule on behalf of the mega-egg confinement operations. The fate of the rule thus now hinges on what action if any the Administration or Congress takes in the coming months.