Chickens at an organic facility
Since September is National Organic Harvest Month (also known as National Organic Food Celebration Month), it’s a good time to take a look at what the “organic” label does – and doesn’t – mean in terms of farm animal welfare.
Consumers often assume that certified organic meat, milk and eggs come from animals who are treated better than those who are conventionally raised, but this is not necessarily the case. While it is true that the United State’s Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Organic Program is one of the few independent, third-party food certification programs that include some animal welfare standards, it fails to address many cruel but common farming practices. Such practices include extreme overcrowding and physical mutilations without anesthetic, like debeaking, de-toeing, tail docking, and castration.
What’s more, the standards that do exist are often ill-defined and unevenly enforced, rendering them unreliable. For example, federal regulations require that organically-raised animals be provided with “access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment.” While this may sound pretty good on paper, it doesn’t always play out so well in reality.
A myriad of important factors are left undefined, especially in regards to the phrase “access to the outdoors.” How many points of access to the outdoors should there be? How big should they be? How often must they be open, and what type of outdoor area must be accessible? None of these questions are answered by the regulations. As a result, the term “organic” can be – and is – used to market products from animals who are crowded by the thousands inside barns with one or a few small exits. These exits may be kept closed for long periods of time, and may lead to barren dirt lots when they are open.
Some certified organic egg producers even get away with providing their hens no access to the outdoors whatsoever. In The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter, authors Peter Singer and Jim Mason describe their visit to one such producer, Pete and Gerry’s Eggs located in New Hampshire:
We hadn't noticed any way in which the hens
we had just seen could go outdoors. "So these
hens have outdoor access?" we asked.
[Pete and Gerry’s CFO] Jesse [Laflamme]
pointed to a bare patch of dirt between
the shed we had been in and a neighboring
shed. "There are penned in areas over
there, and around the back," he said.
But the shed we had been in didn't seem
to allow any way of getting outside. We
asked Jesse how the birds got out.
"It's sealed," he acknowledged. "I sealed it
up about three or four weeks ago, because
of the time of year. The USDA has exceptions
for that, depending on the climate."
Laflamme was presumably referring to a provision of the regulations that permit an organic producer to “provide temporary confinement for an animal” because of inclement weather. The operative word in this provision that Laflamme seems to have overlooked is “temporary,” as Singer and Mason discovered:
We pressed on: "If we had come a month ago,
and it was a warm day, would there be hens
"If it was a clear day, and we could be sure
that there were no wild birds flying over,
"But you can never be sure that there would
be no wild birds flying over!"
"Right. There’s the rub. But we've had the
doors open on some days. Not many birds
"And you don't get problems with the
inspectors about that?" we asked.
"No, nobody is getting problems about that,
at this point."
Rescued hens at Farm Sanctuary enjoy access to the outdoors throughout the year.
It turns out that Pete and Gerry’s organic certifier, the New Hampshire Department of Agriculture, has decided that, federal regulations notwithstanding, it will not require any of its producers to meet the access to the outdoors requirement.
And the problem extends beyond New Hampshire. One Massachusetts company, Country Hen, was granted certification by the USDA after two separate certifiers rejected its application for failing to provide outdoor access. These independent bodies determined that fully enclosed balconies that are accessible for just a few hours each day during the summer months only did not satisfy the requirement. But rather than providing outdoor access, Country Hen appealed USDA, which overruled the independent certifiers within days. Read more about the USDA’s order and the certifier’s subsequent appeal, which was dismissed.
As these examples demonstrate, flawed regulations and poor enforcement render the “organic” label an unreliable measure of farm animal welfare.
Learn more about the truth behind the labels. After you educate yourself, help inform others about the reality of “organic,” “free range” and “humane” meat, milk and eggs with our “Truth Behind ‘Humane’ Meat, Milk and Eggs” brochure. Remember, the only truly humane diet is a vegan one. For information and support to help make the transition, visit Farm Sanctuary’s Veg for Life Web site.