Think that buying organic meat, eggs, and dairy means the animals were treated kindly? Think again.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which regulates the prerequisites for organic certification, has decided that farms don’t really have to meet its animal welfare standards. I guess they were just kidding with that whole we-care-about-animals act. The USDA’s decision to let farms do as they please to animals ignores the recommendation of its own advisory board, while it helps big business.
As implemented, the USDA’s organic standards are intended to promote environmental sustainability and possibly consumers’ health, not to help animals. To legally label crops or animal products organic, a company must not use:
- synthetic fertilizers
- sewage sludge (If you didn’t buy organic before, I bet you’re seriously considering it now!)
- genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
- ionizing radiation
Meat, egg, and dairy sellers have a couple extra no-nos:
- growth hormones
Animals are better off without routine administration of medications that make them grow faster than their bones and other systems can handle, but those who are sick and need antibiotics for treatment cannot receive them and remain organic. Businesses are supposed to treat them anyway, but cannot sell their bodies and products as organic.
On paper the USDA has one prerequisite for organic certification that is meant to improve animals’ lives: they must have ”year-round access to the outdoors except under specific conditions (e.g., inclement weather).” The government’s website also claims that to be officially organic, farms must raise their animals “per animal health and welfare standards.”
In practice, the USDA really doesn’t care. Five mega-farms ignore their animals’ welfare, and the USDA has said that is just fine, as Farm Sanctuary’s Bruce Friedrich explained in the San Jose Mercury News. The USDA’s decision was quite a snub of the National Organic Standards Board’s Livestock Committee, which is charged with “making recommendations to ensure that livestock standards are implemented to maintain both organic standards for consumers and good living conditions for the animals.” The Board knows its place. It opens its website with a giant caveat: “NOTE: Recommendations made by the NOSB are not official policy until they are approved and adopted by USDA.” They should change the end of that to read “approved, adopted, and enforced by USDA.”
Not that you should waste any tears on the poor ignored NOSB. Its recommendations for basic things like the amount of living space each animal has are, in some cases, worse than what the factory farming industry itself requires for non-organic animals. How could it possibly make such recommendations with a straight face? Easily: the board, by law, does not include a single animal advocate. It’s got farmers, environmentalists and scientists, but no one with a stake in giving hens more than one square feet of indoor space in which to live their entire lives.
There is nothing wrong in theory with having one regulated label for food raised in an environmentally sustainable way and another for products from animals whose lives were somewhat better than the norm. In fact there are some government-regulated labels related to animal welfare, like “free-range” and “cage-free.” The problem lies in the gap between consumers’ understanding of the word organic and the government’s narrow interpretation.
The New York Times notes that for shoppers, the organic label conjures up images of “contented cows grazing on the green hills of family-owned farms.” People who choose organic for that reason are getting snookered by agribusiness marketing and government acquiescence. The 500 organic farms that do comply with the organic space requirements for animals are also getting stiffed, as the five big farms save money by cramming animals in tight.
Sadly, this is the USDA behaving exactly as we’ve come to expect from an agency that is controlled by the very businesses it is supposed to regulate.
Before your next shopping trip, read up on the various food labels. You may be surprised.