Organic livestock standards proposed

Proposal clarifies how organic producers and handlers must treat livestock throughout their life, including transport and slaughter.

Consumers look for and trust the organic seal because they know that the U.S. Department of Agriculture stands behind the standards it represents. In order to ensure consistent application of the USDA organic regulations for organic livestock and poultry operations and to maintain confidence in organic-labeled products, USDA took action Thursday by announcing that it will soon publish and invite public comment on a proposed rule regarding organic livestock and poultry practices.

“It’s an important step that will strengthen consumer confidence in the label and ensure that organic agriculture continues to provide economic opportunities for farmers, ranchers and businesses around the country,” Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) administrator Elanor Starmer said. “This proposal sets clear standards for organic animals, providing clarity to organic operations and certifying agents and establishing a level playing field for all producers.”  

The proposal aims to clarify how organic producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and well-being throughout life, including transport and slaughter. It would clarify existing USDA organic regulations and add new requirements for the living conditions, transport and slaughter of organic livestock and poultry.

For example, the proposed rule establishes minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for organic poultry and clarifies that outdoor spaces must be soil based. The proposed indoor stocking densities for layers allow a maximum hen weight of 3.0-4.5 lb./sq. ft. of indoor space, depending on the housing type. Outdoor space for poultry is a maximum of 2.25 lb./sq. ft. for layers and 5.0 lb./sq. ft. for broilers. The outdoor areas will need to have at least 50% soil. In addition, porches (screened, roofed areas attached to the poultry house) will not count as outdoor space. Therefore, some operations may need to access additional land in order to comply with this outdoor space requirement.

New provisions address transport and slaughter practices, such as requiring organic feed during transit. In cases such as poultry slaughter, where requirements do not allow feed for 24 hours before slaughter, producers and slaughter facilities will need to ensure that transport time does not exceed 12 hours, as the birds would need to be fed at that time. Bedding must be provided on trailer floors and in holding pens as needed to keep livestock clean, dry and comfortable during transportation and prior to slaughter.

The proposed rule also specifies which physical alterations are allowed and prohibited in organic livestock and poultry production.

According to a survey by Organic Egg Farmers of America, 76% of organic egg production in the U.S. participates in private animal welfare certification programs. Therefore, AMS expects that many of the requirements in the proposed rule already have been implemented and will not produce significant costs. Producers may incur some costs, such as for increased paperwork, building additional fences, providing shade in outdoor areas or creating more doors in poultry houses.

The total retail market for organic products in the U.S. is now valued at more than $39 billion. AMS announced on Monday that, from 2014 to 2015, the sector grew by 12%. “The demand for organic agriculture continues to grow each year, and these proposed changes will build on USDA’s efforts to support organic producers,” Starmer said. “By strengthening standards for organic livestock and poultry, we are ensuring that we meet consumer expectations and maintain the integrity of the organic seal to support the sector’s continued growth.”

In the proposed rule, AMS said it believes that in the context of organic livestock and poultry production, particularly egg production, variations in practices result in consumers receiving inadequate and inconsistent information about livestock products. This belief is supported by consumer surveys. “By establishing clear and equitable organic livestock and poultry standards, this rule would help organic producers more effectively market their products,” the rule explained.

The proposed rule will be published soon in the Federal Register and is available to view now at www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic-livestock-and-poultry-practices. Public participation and comments are vital to USDA's work in organic agriculture. The organic community, stakeholders and consumers are invited to submit written comments on the proposed rule by visiting www.regulations.gov once the proposed rule has been published.

Comments can also be submitted by mail, using the process outlined in the proposed rule, to: Paul Lewis, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-NOP, Room 2646-So., Ag Stop 0268, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20250-0268.

AMS has proposed three stages to implementing the rule:

• Within one year of publication of the final rule, all provisions, except for outdoor space requirements for poultry, must be implemented.

• Within three years of publication of the final rule, previously non-certified poultry operations and houses must comply with outdoor space requirements to obtain organic certification.

• Within five years of publication of the final rule, all certified organic poultry operations must comply with outdoor space requirements.

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