The Certified Organic label portrays the most rigorous agricultural standards for environmental and human health protection. But how to what degree does it extend protections for animal welfare?
Garces is one of the foremost experts on animal welfare regulations in the nation, and has worked extensively in Europe and was instrumental in improving conditions for animals in the European Union.
What are the top animal welfare issues that you think would surprise consumers of organic meats?
Concern for animal welfare is one of the top reasons consumers choose organic eggs, dairy, and meats. But when the organic standards in the United States were developed, crops were the focus, not animals. Animal welfare was an afterthought. While some important measures have been made to protect farm animals in the standard, it’s not enough. For example, a lot of people will assume that organic chickens and pigs have access to pasture. They do not necessarily. Many of the best organic farms are ‘pastured based,’ but not because the standard requires it as such. There are some large industrial organic chicken producers using what is known as concrete ‘porches’ that are hardly accessible by the animals to count as their ‘outdoor access.’ That means hard floors and screened siding, but no dirt, grass, and direct sunshine. The standard also allows for overcrowding of animals, for certain mutilations like routine beak trimming, and in some instances electric prodding and tie stalls.
Often the higher cost you pay for organic is more related to the higher cost of the organic feed (maize and soy) given to the animals than with improved animal welfare.
There has been significant pressure on the National Organic Standards Board to enhance their animal welfare standards. Why do you think they haven’t adopted better animal welfare regulations as part of the Certified Organic label?
The National Organic Program has said this: “Given other urgent priorities at this time, we do not anticipate addressing the NOSB proposals on animal welfare in the near future.” When they said this, they had just completed an economic impact analysis of what it would cost to implement the changes for poultry. They looked at the economics of enforcing the changes that were recommended for animal welfare. That report said that if the recommendations for eggs were implemented, the “costs will increase substantially … for large organic egg producers and likely cause a substantial number of producers to exit organic production and switch to conventional production.”
Of course retaining organic farmers is critical, but not if those farmers are not following what is the spirit of organic and what consumers expect organic to mean.
If organic isn’t as protective of animal welfare as one would think, what should shoppers look for?
There are a lot of wonderful organic producers out there, like Vital Farms or Organic Valley. Cornucopia provides a great scorecard to help navigate your way with eggs. The best combination, though, would be for consumers to look for organic (which prioritizes protecting the environment at this stage) combined with a meaningful animal welfare certification (which prioritize protecting the farm animal), like Animal Welfare Approved, Global Animal Partnership or Certified Humane. Vital Farms and Organic Valley, for example, are both organic and Certified Humane.
However, we still must continue to work to improve the current organic standards to be meaningful for farm animal welfare.
What are some of the aspects of the Certified Organic label that you appreciate?
Hens caged in factory farms have a terrible life, as do sows in gestation crates and calves in veal crates. The worst confinement systems are prohibited by organic standards. I support and commend it for those reasons alone. While it’s far from perfect, this is the only federally regulated standard that stipulates standards for improved farm animal welfare. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) is cage-free and crate-free and this alone means farm animal will have a better life when compared to conventional practices.