The U.S. Department of Agriculture is currently accepting public comments on its proposed Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards rule, which is a great opportunity to address farm animal welfare. We’re pushing hard for this landmark federal regulation to become final because the rule, which is over twenty years in the making, would strengthen animal welfare standards on organic farms.

The rule’s fundamental goal is to better align the label “USDA Organic” with public expectations regarding the welfare of animals raised for food. A 2017 Consumer Reports survey found that 86% of those who always or often buy organic believe it is highly important that animals used to produce organic food be raised on farms with high welfare standards. The survey also found that 83%of consumers of organic products consider it important that organic eggs come from hens who could go outdoors and enjoy sufficient space to freely move around.

There are more than 60 million farm animals raised under the standards of the USDA Organic Program every year. But there’s more at stake in our view. The federal government needs to do a better job supporting higher welfare for animals raised for food, and the organics program is a natural place to demonstrate such a commitment.

The proposed organics rule has a history going back to the 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Act, which authorized a national organics program. The rule, like the program, exists to satisfy the public’s demand for organics standards that are meaningful, and people have made it clear again and again that they want the rule to mean something when it comes to its implications and effects concerning animal welfare.

Among its provisions, the proposed rule includes a ban on the use of cruel gestation crates in the organics program for animal welfare and public health reasons. It requires that pigs be given enough space to move and engage in natural behaviors. 

The rule also sets minimum standards in other key areas. For all organically raised cattle, it prohibits painful practices including tail docking and face branding. It prohibits the transport for sale or slaughter of non-ambulatory “downed animals.” Organic wool producers would no longer be able to inflict “mulesing” on sheep, the brutal removal of strips of skin from the animal’s backside. The rule also specifies that producers cannot withhold individual treatment designed to minimize pain and suffering for injured, diseased or sick animals.

We feel strongly about the value of this rule. That’s why the Humane Society of the United States initiated litigation when the Trump administration withdrew the first iteration of this rule finalized under the Obama administration. That’s also why we’re asking our supporters and allies to submit public comments on the proposal. Finally, it’s why we’re directly pressing the Secretary of Agriculture to strongly assert the organic policymaking authority of the USDA to protect animal welfare.

A consistent standard for animal welfare would level the playing field and benefit the hundreds of organics producers who operate under the program and create incentives for more farmers to embrace and honor higher welfare standards. Already, a number of companies have flourished, due in part to the perceived strength of the organic label. These companies understand that consumer trust in the organic label is critical to their success.

There’s no reason to wait: We remain concerned about arguments to extend the implementation period to fifteen years for parts of a rule that’s already so long in the making. Its contents are not a surprise to anyone in the field, its basic premises are well known to all stakeholders and it is supported by a large number of organics producers, many of whom are already fully compliant. A 15-year implementation timeframe is far too long and would further muddy consumer expectations around the organics label. We consider the case for swift implementation of this vital rule to be an overwhelming one.

In a better world, it would be self-evident that farm animals should be given space and freedom to move. But in ours—where pregnant pigs are routinely confined in crates so small they can barely move an inch and hens are crammed into tiny battery cages—it has been necessary to champion these principles again and again, in contexts ranging from state and federal legislation to our animal protection litigation work.

It’s right that we establish high standards for the organics program. Its fundamental purpose is to reinforce models of agricultural production that are sustainable, environmentally friendly, animal welfare-sensitive and better for humans and human society.

Higher standards in the organics program will be a boon to responsible farmers, a benefit to consumers and a stronger guarantee of animal welfare practices consistent with evolving public sentiment.

Take action for farm animals and urge the USDA to finalize the proposed rule

Sara Amundson is president of the Humane Society Legislative Fund.