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The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is currently reviewing the proposed Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards, aiming to establish clearer and more consistent application of organic standards across the country. Advocates for animal welfare argue that these updates have the potential to significantly improve the living conditions of the vast number of farm animals raised under the USDA's National Organic Program, which exceeds 186 million annually.

Recently, a panel of 57 U.S. representatives and 20 U.S. senators deliberated on the new standards, which will impose restrictions and guidelines on livestock health practices. Notable provisions include the prohibition of debeaking and desnooding of birds, as well as tail docking of cattle. The rules will also mandate the provision of perches for egg-laying hens and the elimination of gestation crates for pregnant swine, ultimately enhancing living conditions both indoors and outdoors. Additionally, shelters must ensure adequate space for ruminants, swine, and birds to lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs and wings.

Gillian Lyons, Director of Regulatory Affairs at the Humane Society Legislative Fund, emphasizes the positive impact of these proposed changes on animal welfare and overall health within the organic program. She believes that the establishment of animal welfare standards will not only enhance food safety but also contribute to preventing potential epidemics and pandemics. Lyons points out that favoring free-range systems over high-density cage farming reduces the risk of disease transmission and proliferation, such as avian influenza. Moreover, by reducing stress in animals and improving their immune systems, the proposed rule mitigates the risk of diseases spreading from animals to humans.

The proposed Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards represent the first updates to organic animal livestock guidelines since 2017. Previous changes were deemed modest, merely aligning the standards with practices already adopted by many organic producers. The current additions to the standards, however, aim to strengthen animal care and improve living conditions more comprehensively than before.

A recent Consumer Reports survey reveals that nearly 90 percent of organic shoppers consider high animal welfare standards important for organic-labeled food. Charlotte Vallaeys, Senior Policy Analyst with Consumer Reports, emphasizes the consumer expectation for strong and consistent standards, particularly regarding animal welfare, in organic farming. Vallaeys suggests that consumers already perceive organic meat and poultry products as meeting these high standards.

Johanna Mirenda, Farm Policy Director at the Organic Trade Association, highlights the potential economic benefits for farmers resulting from enhanced organic animal welfare standards. Mirenda states that strengthening these standards is crucial for the sustainability of family farms, the advancement of organic practices, and the continued trust of consumers in the organic label.

Although the USDA plans to allow organic farmers up to 15 years to comply with the new regulations, concerns have been raised about the lengthy timeline. Advocates like Mirenda argue that this extended implementation period is excessive and may contribute to consumer confusion and market failure. Meanwhile, Lyons maintains that the industry is well aware of the basic premises outlined in the proposed rule, and swift implementation is crucial.

Despite the debate surrounding the timeline, proponents believe that the new standards will be a significant victory for animals and consumers alike. By finalizing these regulations, the Biden Administration would not only protect animal welfare but also increase consumer satisfaction and confidence in the organic label.