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News Icon 11/27/2023

This month, the USDA finalized a suite of updated animal welfare requirements for USDA Organic-certified farms and products. The new rules add multiple much-needed requirements for egg-laying hens and chickens grown for meat and several other requirements for pigs, cattle, and other mammalian animals that help ensure animals on these farms receive the care they need for happy and healthy lives.

Decades in the making

The National Organics Standards Board, the Federal Advisory Committee charged with advising the USDA, made nine recommendations regarding livestock health, living conditions, and welfare between 1994 and 2011. In 2000, the USDA finalized the first rule updating the handling of certified organic animals. Then, a controversial 2002 memorandum was released to clarify what counted as "outdoor access" and when animals could be temporarily confined. The last official update to the USDA Organic livestock and poultry welfare standards was in 2010, when the USDA made several clarifications requiring certified cattle, goats, and sheep to be on pasture.

In late 2016, the USDA finalized a rule similar to the new 2023 standards. However, the rule was withdrawn by the incoming administration in early 2017 before it could go into effect. 

A growing need for clearer welfare standards

While many certified organic farmers use higher welfare practices, the program's subjectively-written regulations on animal welfare have enabled large, more industrialized farms to earn organic status, co-opting the label and consumer expectations. For example, while some organic egg farmers raised their hens fully on pasture, other certified producers fulfilled the requirement for outdoor access using small, hard-floored enclosed balconies or "porches" attached to their barns. While the number of farms using porches is relatively small, they house roughly 70% of all certified organic hens due to their large, industrial scale. A separate 2010 review by the USDA found one certified organic farm that offered only 300 square feet of outdoor space —about the area of a parking spot— for 15,000 chickens, but several others that offered ample, year-round pasture for their chickens.

The vast variation in animal welfare practices among organic producers created challenges for both farmers and conscious consumers. Farmers who had spent time, money, and resources providing extensive animal care and welfare were not being rewarded for their added value. About 90% of organic egg farmers and 99.5% of organic chicken farmers sought out other certifications from third-party animal welfare certifiers to assure consumers of their higher welfare practices, causing duplicative work and added expenses for the farmers. Meanwhile, farms that did not invest in higher welfare for their animals still enjoyed the same price premiums for their certified organic products. The confusion around animal welfare standards among consumers also caused shoppers to lose faith in the label, weakening the overall purpose of the organic program.

The new rule aims to reaffirm the role of animal welfare in the organic standards, level the competitive landscape among certified farmers, and better ensure higher welfare practices for consumers.

What are the new animal welfare requirements for USDA organic farms and products?

The new rule makes several significant improvements and clarifications.

Under the new regulations, certified farms raising broiler chickens and egg-laying hens must:

  • Meet specific indoor and outdoor space requirements, making sure the birds have ample room
  • Offer year-round access to the outdoors with soil and vegetation (not just hard surfaces such as concrete or gravel) and ensure all the birds can easily leave the barn at their will
  • Not use enclosed "porches" to count as outdoor space
  • Monitor and maintain safe ammonia levels (below 20 ppm), which can be harmful to both the birds and workers

Certified farms raising cows, pigs, sheep, and other mammals must:

  • Offer shelter that is large enough for the animals to move, stretch, and express natural behaviors
  • Offer access to the outdoors year-round
  • Provide pigs with rooting materials, a natural behavior pigs do to find food, obtain nutrients, cool off, and for comfort
  • Document and treat sick or injured animals, even if that means losing the animal's organic status
  • Monitor and actively mitigate causes of lameness

The new rule also explicitly prohibits low-welfare practices for both birds and mammals, such as:

  • Caging female breeding pigs in gestation and farrowing crates, which prevent pigs from walking and turning around for months at a time
  • Performing physical alterations that are widely considered painful and cruel, such as face-branding of cattle, teeth clipping of pigs, and induced molting of poultry birds.
  • Using inhumane methods of slaughter, including suffocation, hitting animals on the head, or crushing the neck
  • Exposing animals to extreme temperatures during transport
  • Transporting animals who are too sick or injured to walk

While the new regulations offer significant improvements, they leave several shortcomings. For example, certified farms are allowed to keep newborn dairy calves indoors and individually confined for up to six months. In addition, the final rule does not provide space requirements for turkeys or outdoor space requirements for mammals such as pigs, cows, and sheep, and pigs are not required to have access to soil or vegetation.

See the USDA's Final Rule and Fact Sheet for more information.

Compassion in World Farming submitted comments to the USDA's proposed updates to the organic livestock and poultry standards signed by over 2,400 supporters. Several of CIWF's recommendations were added to the final rule, including requiring active mitigation of causes of lameness and explicitly banning gestation and farrowing crates. Organic producers must comply with most of the new regulations by 2025. Organic producers raising chickens for eggs and meat have until 2029 to comply with the indoor and outdoor space requirements.

Looking Ahead

There are no federal laws that protect farmed animal welfare until they are transported for slaughter. So far, 15 states have passed laws that protect farmed animal welfare, such as banning the use of cages for egg-laying hens or veal crates for calves. While participation in the USDA organic program is voluntary, the new regulations mark the first robust set of national-level animal welfare standards in the U.S. government.

With more food companies committing to higher welfare, including leading brands in retail, hospitality, restaurants, and food service, and more people becoming aware of the animal suffering in factory farms, the demand for higher welfare standards, such as the new organic requirements, is increasing.  CIWF continues to urge more companies to make farmed animal welfare commitments and helps them meet their goals. In addition, CIWF works to support the passage of farmed animal welfare legislation at the state and federal level, and provide recommendations to the USDA, EPA, and other agencies to help keep animals from suffering on factory farms.

The new USDA organic animal welfare standards signify continued momentum toward better practices for animals across the government, corporations, and the public.  

Allie Molinaro smiling at the camera wearing a black Compassion in World Farming t-shirt

As Campaign Manager, Allie Molinaro works to advance Compassion USA's state and federal policy work, thought leadership, and activist mobilization. She focuses her work on placing factory farming in a broader context, highlighting its impacts not only on animal welfare but also on pollution, climate change, public health, and social justice. Allie holds an M.S. in Environmental Policy and Sustainability Management from The New School and a B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of Connecticut.



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