Do you want to eat poultry and eggs, but only if the birds lived and died humanely? Bad news: choosing “organic” poultry does not get you where you want to go. And good news: you have a chance to weigh in on stricter definitions for the organic label if you act this month.
The federal government regulates the standards companies must meet before they can label poultry “organic,” but those standards mandate little in the way of humane treatment. The rules are: birds’ food must be organic; no hormones to promote growth; practices to prevent illness and treatment for illness are required, but no antibiotics; and year-round access to the outdoors is required.
Good food and medical treatment are important to humane treatment, as is access to the outdoors. But they are not nearly enough — for instance, they don’t prohibit the routine mutilation of chickens’ beaks without anesthesia or the painful force-feeding of ducks and geese to produce foie gras. Plus, reports from animal advocates indicate that even these paltry standards are often ignored.
United Poultry Concerns (UPC) reported the findings of an eyewitness on a certified organic farm in a February 11, 2004 paper titled “Free Range Poultry and Eggs”: the birds never set foot outside, and they were jam-packed into their barn.
UPC also notes the conclusions of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, that “many ‘organic’ operators provide only tiny enclosed porches, with roofs and concrete or wood flooring, yet call these structures ‘the outdoors.’ Many of the porches represent just 3 to 5 percent of the square footage of the main building housing the birds. That means 95 percent or more of the birds have absolutely no access whatsoever.” And these porches are missing one of the most important aspects of the outdoors for chickens: soil. They love pecking and scratching for food, building nests in the earth, and dustbathing, none of which are possible on concrete or wood flooring.
Needless to say, agribusiness strongly opposes expanding or strengthening enforcement of the humane provisions of the organic standard. Our voices are crucial to combat their pressure on the USDA.
In addition to strengthening the definition of “organic” to include humane treatment of poultry, we must call for more stringement enforcement of the new rules. Currently, the USDA outsources organic certification and inspection to external organizations. It must keep a tighter rein on those groups to ensure that the organic certification means what the USDA says it means, or handle the job itself.
At the end of May, the National Organic Standards Board, which advises the USDA, will meet to discuss the possibility of making organic standards for poultry more humane. Sign our petition to the NOSB urging them to make the “organic” label more meaningful.
Photo credit: Omar Chatriwala