This likely won’t come as news to those of you who follow closely the organic industry’s ever-shifting ground, but there’s an animal welfare battle roiling the $47 billion market.
As reported last month, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed a withdrawal from the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP), a set of animal welfare rules that would redefine what it means to produce organic meat, and buy organic eggs and milk.
Currently, to be certified “organic,” producers must raise animals without antibiotics, growth hormones, or animal byproducts. Feed must be 100-percent certified organic, and contain no genetically modified organisms or unapproved synthetic pesticides. And animals must have year-round access to the outdoors with “fresh air” and “direct sunlight.”
Those last two terms—fresh air and sunlight—are causing particular headaches for the poultry industry. As Lynne Curry wrote in her December piece about the fate of the OLPP, the definition of “outdoors” sounds pretty straightforward to laymen. But those terms, as it turns out, are rather loose, and inherently more about birds-per-foot than how you quantify air and sky.
Here’s the problem with that. Since 2002, large-scale producers who raise their hens in cramped barns have been able to create fenced walls, or “poultry porches,” for their barns and still qualify those conditions as meeting the “fresh air” and “direct sunlight” provision. That allows these producers to “get certified and collect their egg money,” wrote Curry.
But until that happens, they’re dominating an uneven playing field, according to the 95 percent of organic producers who lag behind in sales. That’s been the cause of a profound rift. The porch loophole is seen as an unfair advantage benefitting higher-density producers who use economies of scale to sell their eggs to consumers at low, low prices.
As Curry wrote, farms like Herbruck’s have good reason to oppose the new standards, and applaud the proposed withdrawal. “They do not want to give up their rapidly growing market share or their cost of production advantages from raising millions of birds in multistory aviaries,” she wrote, even if it’s the furthest thing from the image of organic chickens that many consumers have in their heads: happy, healthy chickens outside, scratching and pecking in the ground.
Now a group of organic producers has taken the next step, and condemned the withdrawal in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, published on Tuesday as a full-page ad in the Washington Post.
“We are deeply disappointed by your proposal to eliminate the new organic standard on animal welfare,” the letter reads. “Eliminating the rule not only fails to acknowledge innovation in the organic farming sector and provide fair and transparent rules, it also undermines the faith people have in how organic agriculture is governed.”
The letter’s co-signers include major producers like Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farms; industry groups including the National Farmers Union, the Humane Society of the United States, and the Union of Concerned Scientists; and organic-sympathetic grocers such as Whole Foods Market.
According to Organic Valley CEO George Siemon, those co-signers are urging Secretary Purdue to implement the welfare standards not just because it’s the right thing to do, or because animal welfare is a market premium that gives the co-signers a competitive edge. He says it represents a broader weakening of the green-and-white label. (Organic Valley belongs to the Organic Trade Association, which is suing USDA to implement the requirements.)
“This is a major violation of the processes built around the organic label to date,” Siemon says. “This could easily be carried to a whole lot of the rules that have been worked on for the last 25 years.”
He points to USDA’s assertion that the original organic law (OFPA) didn’t include the animal welfare provisions that Perdue is proposing to withdraw. (It’s an argument not unlike the one that so-called constitutional “originalists” make about why same-sex marriage shouldn’t be allowed because it wasn’t written down by the founding fathers.) And, he says, he fears that other restrictions that don’t appear in the law, like the “pasture rule” that was enshrined for organic livestock in 2010, could be next.
That battle is indicative of a larger cultural shift. When organic was first enshrined in congressional law in 1990, it was not the economic powerhouse it has become today. Now, as organic’s own success threatens to eclipse its activist origins, some of its original promoters, like Siemon, are trying to reclaim them. That’s why Siemon is at pains to paint organic practices as having been pioneered and promoted by farmers and stakeholders, not politicians.
“This has been a volunteer program,” he says. “We just asked the USDA to just be the keeper of the process.”
What organic producers have gotten out that relationship, of course, is the label, and the market share it’s come to capture. But now, they’re seeing the flipside: in federal politics, nothing is free.