cows in field

New Organic Animal Welfare Rules are Now Final*

Compiled and written by Ed Maltby, NODPA Executive Director

NODPA, the organic community and other organizations have advocated for almost two decades for clear animal welfare standards to be incorporated into the organic regulations. When the Pasture Rule was published in 2010, then-Deputy Secretary of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, said that a regulation on Animal Welfare would be published ‘soon’ followed by the Origin of Livestock Rule. Moving forward to 2023, the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards (OLPS) Final Rule (the Rule) amending 7 CFR part 205, was published on November 2, 2023, and will become effective on January 12, 2024. It will be enforced on January 2, 2025, with a few exceptions.

The implementation of the soil, vegetation, exit door and outdoor stocking density for laying hens and broilers requirement and the indoor stocking density for broilers is delayed until January 2, 2029.

Final Rule Chickens_thumb

The new regulations were published to provide certifiers and National Organic Program certifier accreditation auditors with detailed requirements in many areas of livestock health and welfare, removing some of the current subjective language that has caused varied implementation and enforcement difficulties. USDA AMS hopes that this Rule will help in leveling the playing field for all organic producers and provide more integrity to the organic label. As with any regulation, there are compromises, especially when USDA must follow federal requirements that require any regulation to have an analysis of the effect on markets and supply of product to consumers. Allowing for the effect of regulation on a changing market can undermine the basis of organic certification, which is process and science based, not decided by the economic effect on those operations that have disregarded the intent of the regulations and profited by having an unfair marketing advantage. For example, USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) states that “AMS estimates that approximately 30% of organic egg production comes from hens with access to outdoor areas that include soil or pasture, while approximately 70% of organic egg production only has access to the outdoors through enclosed porches with no soil or pasture.” Notice they say production not operations or producers as most poultry producers do follow the letter and intent of the organic regulations. The Rule corrects this imbalance, if somewhat inadequately, by defining the square footage of land required (about two square feet for laying hens and one square foot for broilers) and that it must be at least 75% soil with vegetation.

While an improvement, the Rule does not meet industry standards. In comparison, Organic Valley currently requires five square feet of pasture for laying hens. To qualify as organic in the European Union, organic farmers need to provide 43 square feet and highly regarded animal welfare labels in the US (qualifying farms as “pastured poultry”) require 108 square feet. Unfortunately, the USDA permits that the first 25% adjacent to their housing can be concrete or gravel requiring birds be determined enough to move away from their pelleted feed, water and shelter to reach the pasture, which, as defined currently, may not have much nutrition. Similarly, the compromise reached within the rule does require the exit doors for poultry houses, rather than being “sufficient” to allow outdoor access, must have no less than 1 linear foot of exit area for 360 birds. While this gives inspectors and certifiers the clear language they need, it does not reflect the language recommended by the organic community to require the birds have enough exits to encourage true access to the outdoors.

The organic regulations always had language promoting animal welfare, since lessening stress results in fewer health problems and inputs. However, the new rule spells out some of the required management needed to lessen that stress. Many of the new requirements are in line with other animal welfare requirements, but there are some significant differences that may mean producers still need to carry other welfare certifications to satisfy market requirements.

The decision to allow existing operations to continue with limited or no outside access for 5 years does compromise every aspect of the new regulations. Given the NOP’s history of implementation and enforcement of new regulations which is demonstrated by USDA’s need to reiterate provisions within the Pasture Rule from 2010 in this regulation, the probable time that these operations will continue without change or provide small attempts at change to partially satisfy non-compliances will most likely be in the region of 10 years rather than 5.

Final Rule Provisions for Livestock

While the new rule has significant details for humane avian treatment, there are some improvements for mammals as well, including dealing with injuries, lameness, and improved transport to slaughter requirements, plus clear language for animal welfare at slaughter.

On tie-stall and stanchion barns the Rule states: “Because tie-stall and stanchion barns do not allow an animal to turn around, an operation cannot leave an animal tied up in this type of indoor space for more than 24 hours. Operations must describe their practices in their OSP and demonstrate to an accredited certifying agent that their use of these structures complies with other applicable organic regulations.”

NODPA has been strongly recommending that referring to body condition when evaluating ruminants that was in the Proposed Rule be removed from the regulations and it’s not in the Final Rule. The addition of “resulting in appropriate body condition” in the Proposed Rule was unnecessary. Section 201.237(d) requires documentation of the animal’s total feed ration, the amount of each type of feed actually fed, and all changes made to all rations throughout the year. Further, § 205.238(a)(2) already requires a feed ration sufficient to meet the animal’s nutritional needs. Failure to do either is an enforceable event. Finally, “appropriate body condition” is a subjective determination influenced by species, breed, stage of life, age, gender, and time of year, not to mention inspector qualification and experience.

The new Rule states that organic milk from organic milking cows that are being treated with allowed synthetic substances that have a “withholding time” cannot be sold as organic but may be fed to organic calves during the withholding time.

(1) Sell, label, or represent as organic any animal or product derived from any animal treated with antibiotics, any substance that contains a synthetic substance not allowed under § 205.603 of this part, or any substance that contains a non-synthetic substance prohibited in § 205.604 of this part. Milk from animals undergoing treatment with synthetic substances that are allowed under § 205.603 of this part but have associated withdrawal periods cannot be sold, labeled, or represented as organic during the withdrawal period but may be fed to calves on the same operation. Milk from animals undergoing treatment with prohibited substances cannot be sold, labeled, or represented as organic or fed to organic livestock.

Below is the wording of the Final Rule on transporting animals as it’s important to know exactly what is required because all of us will transport animals at some point. All of our work on this Rule, over the last 10 years, has been to ensure that regulation is practical and reflects common sense. We failed in some places, particularly on having the word ‘clean’ removed for when animals are in transport, especially taking animals to slaughter from good pasture where their manure could be very loose.

§ 205.242 Transport and slaughter.

(a) Transportation.

(1) Certified organic livestock must be clearly identified as organic, and this identity must be traceable for the duration of transport.

(2) All livestock must be fit for transport to buyers, auction or slaughter facilities.

(i) Calves must have a dry navel cord and be able to stand and walk without

human assistance.

(ii) Seriously crippled and non-ambulatory animals must not be transported for

sale or slaughter. Such animals may be medically treated or euthanized.

(3) Adequate and season-appropriate ventilation is required for all livestock trailers, shipping containers, and any other mode of transportation used to protect animals against cold and heat stresses.

(4) During any transport and prior to slaughter, bedding must be provided on trailer floors and in holding pens, as needed, to keep livestock clean, dry, and comfortable. Use of bedding must be appropriate to the species and type of transport. Bedding is not required in poultry crates. When roughages are used for bedding, they must be certified organic.

(5) For transport that exceeds eight hours, measured from the time all animals are loaded onto a vehicle until the vehicle arrives at its final destination, the operation must describe how organic management and animal welfare will be maintained.

(i) The producer or handler of an organic livestock operation, who is responsible

for overseeing the transport of organic livestock, must provide records to certifying agents during inspections or upon request that demonstrate that transport times for

organic livestock are not detrimental to the welfare of the animals and meet the

requirements of paragraph (a)(5) of this section.

(ii) [Reserved]

(6) Organic producers and handlers, who are responsible for overseeing the transport of organic livestock, must have emergency plans in place that adequately address possible animal welfare problems that might occur during transport.

The slaughter regulations are now more closely tied to the inspection work of USDA FSIS which may level the playing field for all producers as the domestic organic meat market suffers from the availability of cheaper imported meats, especially ground meat. The Rule mandates that USDA FSIS’ humane slaughter standards must be followed. This will be difficult to enforce in other countries that lack the same stringent enforcement that is legally required by USDA at domestic slaughterhouses, specifically the inspection of all animals prior to slaughter and while being slaughtered. In the United States, there are large discrepancies in enforcing animal welfare standards at slaughterhouses, so the problem will be magnified when ensuring implementation, internationally. For producers who use custom slaughterhouses to slaughter their organic livestock, that may also be a problem.

OLPS Will Result in Significant Changes

We have been waiting for the Rule for too long. It has been a victim of a consolidation in the organic poultry industry that has protected its type of production that denies poultry true outside access but receives the organic premium. With the Rule, porches cannot be considered part of the indoor stocking density requirement if the birds do not have access to this area, year-round. Porches cannot be considered part of the outdoor access unless the poultry always have access to the rest of the outdoor access area, nor can these outdoor porches have any type of “walls”, including screens. Producers are now required to have livestock health records that many certifiers have not required, including parasite control plans, and written plans for euthanasia for livestock suffering from irreversible injury. If transport to slaughter exceeds eight hours, there must be a written plan on how to maintain organic management and animal welfare.

Final Rule piglet_thumb

The Proposed Rule Was Weakened in Some Areas for Poultry, and Organic Swine Requirements are Largely Absent

Some disappointments between the proposed and final rule were in the target ammonia levels in poultry houses, raised from 10 to 20 PPM (25 PPM is prohibited), and the amount of floor scratching area required in slatted/mesh floor housing was lowered from 30 percent to 15 per cent. Unfortunately, the definition of soil was removed entirely from the rule, and any definition of maximal vegetative cover was not incorporated into the rule. The recommendation that gravel not be considered as soil and a definition of “maximal vegetative cover” were not incorporated either.

While gestation and farrowing crates are now specifically prohibited for organic swine (and conventional swine in many states), there are many other aspects where other animal welfare rules address swine physical alterations and living conditions, that are not covered under the organic rule. This is an area that will need further development.

AMS agrees in the Rule that a regulatory definition of “soil should take the entire organic standard into consideration and that defining the term only for use in the livestock area of operation may affect other areas of organic production. Because soil is generally a well-understood term, a regulatory definition is not necessary for the successful implementation of this rule.” We will see how that works! It’s definitely not a definition that encourages a uniform and transparent interpretation of the Rule.

The next steps are to continue to hold USDA AMS and the NOP program’s feet to the fire. No use in giving them 3-5 years to see how they implement the new regulations. Advocates and their organizations need to require yearly updates to Congress on progress in educating certifiers, inspectors, and producers about what they need to do to enforce the regulation. The excuses that they fear a lawsuit or do not have specific enough regulatory language in place no longer hold any water. Years down the road, we do not want to see business as usual while the large operations continue to operate as usual behind a façade of compliance while the USDA says they have inadequate tools to do the work. By that time, we will have lost smaller compliant poultry operations as we have with organic dairy in the time it’s taken to enforce regulations and organic produce growers who cannot compete with hydroponic mega farms.

*This article used the National Organic Coalition (NOC) blog post by Harriet Behar as source material. The article also includes interpretations of the rule from Organic Farmers Association (OFA), other individuals and organizations. NODPA is an active member of NOC and OFA.