USDA proposes new rules for the health and welfare of organic livestock

USDA-inspected meat

For many consumers, the label "certified organic" on meat conjures up images of happy, comfortable animals being raised humanely on farms. But for years, animal welfare activists have been griping about a lack of uniform standards for livestock producers that claim to be organic--and they've been urging the USDA to step up with rules that will guarantee healthy living conditions for their animals.

The USDA has answered the call, releasing draft rules on April 7 that would hold producers of organic meat to several new standards for how they should treat their food animals. The public has been given 60 days to comment on the proposed rules.

The USDA's draft document recommends several new guidelines, including details about what physical alterations can be made on animals to minimize stress, and which alterations shouldn't be made at all. The rules would also require that livestock and poultry be allowed to make contact with soil and that they're given access to outdoor spaces that don't have roofs. Birds would have to be allocated enough space to engage in natural behaviors, and farmers would be expected to minimize the suffering of any sick or disabled livestock, with euthanasia if necessary, according to the proposed rules.

The Washington, DC-based Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) praised the USDA for seeking to update and clarify organic regulations that they say had given livestock producers way too much leeway. "Some producers raise animals on pasture with high welfare, while others raise animals in a manner similar to conventional, intensive agriculture," said the AWI in a statement "In some instances organically raised animals are never even given the opportunity to go outdoors, for example."

Animal welfare organizations have made progress over the past year pushing regulators and companies towards more humane practices. Groups such as the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) have pressured many fast-food companies to abandon meat from animals raised with medically important antibiotics, as part of a larger effort to combat the rise of antibiotic-resistant infections. And the Humane Society has successfully persuaded many food companies to switch to cage-free eggs.

The USDA's proposed rules on organic farming would be the most comprehensive standards ever set for raising farm animals, the AWI says. The group is urging the USDA to "act expeditiously" to implement the new rules.

- here's AWI's statement