In my pre-Thanksgiving post last week I wrote about the politics of turkey, as well other meat products. One thing I discovered is that thanks to good inspection standards, the meat supply in the United States is very safe. While food-borne illness is extremely common – the CDC estimates that over 48 million Americans are affected every year – most cases are relatively minor. In 2016, only 0.007% of the U.S. population sought medical treatment for a food-borne illness of any kind. The vast majority of these cases aren’t caused by contamination occurring at slaughterhouses or meat processing plants. You’re a lot more likely to get sick from contaminated produce or under cooking your meat.
As I mentioned last time, animal welfare is another story. Groups like PETA have repeatedly and convincingly documented the horrific conditions livestock and poultry are subject to. (A brief definitionary aside: under federal law, ‘livestock’ includes cattle, sheep, pigs, horses, mules, donkeys, and goats, whereas poultry refers to domesticated birds including chicken, turkey, duck, and goose.)
The only federal law that addresses treatment of animals intended for the dinner plate is the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act. It limits or prohibits the use of certain livestock driving methods (you can’t, for instance, whack a cow with a piece of pipe or a sharp metal object to keep it moving) and requires that livestock be rendered insensible prior to slaughter, but that’s essentially it. Also, as the name suggests it only applies to livestock, so chickens, turkeys, and other poultry aren’t covered by even these minimal protections.
Maybe you’re thinking, “Okay, the factory farm situation may be pretty grim, but I only get good, organic meat.” If that’s actually you, you’re in a very small minority – over 99 percent of all meat in the U.S. comes from factory farms. But let’s say that is you, or at least the meat-eater you aspire to be. What’s the USDA Organic seal mean when it comes to meat?
First off, in order to be designated as organic, animals have to be fed organic feed, which basically means feed that doesn’t contain pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, or animal protein or by-products. In addition, cows and other ruminants have to be able to graze a minimum of 120 days each year as well as get 30 percent of their feed from pasture.
That covers what goes into organic animals, but what about their living conditions? Going by the USDA’s Organic Livestock Requirements Fact Sheet (which, oddly, also covers poultry) standards seem pretty good. Organic-certified animals must be “raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior”, which includes access to the outdoors, clean & dry bedding, shelter, exercise space, fresh air, clean drinking water, and direct sunlight and shade. Just like how you’d imagine old Farmer Brown does it.
The reality is considerably different. For instance, while organic animals must be given access to the outdoors, that requirement can be satisfied by opening a single small door for an hour a day, a door none of the animals, crammed into unnaturally small spaces, can really access.
But what about that ‘accommodates their health and natural behavior’ clause? That shouldn’t allow for unnatural things like overcrowding, or chickens not ever going outside. I agree it shouldn’t, but since there aren’t any specific requirements, the determination of what ‘accommodates natural behavior’ is made by organic certifiers. The certification isn’t actually done by the government – they approve third-party organic certifiers to do the job. (And as you might expect, there are more than a few quality-control problems with this setup, as government investigations have repeatedly uncovered.)
In the absence of clear federal guidelines, and not wanting get sued by producers, the standards certifiers adopt are generally far better for producers and certifiers than they are for animals. For example, it’s considered acceptable for producers of organic meat to de-beak their chickens, dehorn their cattle, and cut the tails off of their pigs.
In April of 2016, the USDA introduced a rule that would provide far more extensive protections for organic-certified livestock and poultry, a rule that was made final on the very last day of the Obama administration. The ‘Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices’ rule clarifies and tightens animal welfare standards, prohibits certain ‘physical alterations’ of animals, such as de-beaking, beak clipping, tail clipping, and tail docking, sets maximum indoor and outdoor densities for chickens, and defines required outdoor space for animals, among other things. The rule was scheduled to go into effect on March 20, 2017. Producers were given a year after that to meet the new standards, with producers of broiler chickens given an additional two years to meet the new indoor space requirements.
Once a ‘final rule’ has been published in the Federal Registrar, it can’t be revoked without a lengthy and difficult administrative process, which meant that the decidedly anti-regulation Trump administration wasn’t able to simply ignore the new rule on organic-certified animal welfare. But what the new administration could do was delay its ‘effective date’, which they’ve now done three times, with the latest effective date being May 14, 2018.
An agency can’t simply say, ‘we don’t like this rule so we’re going to stall’ – they have to submit ostensibly good reasons for why they’re stalling. In this case, the USDA gave two main reasons. First, they said they needed more time to properly evaluate the costs and benefits of the rule, which they contend the Obama administration had miscalculated, to the detriment of farmers. In other words, they believe that making conditions better for animals would cost farmers and more than the Obama-era USDA said it would.
The second reason they gave for delaying was the need for more public input on the new rule. To get more comments from the public, the USDA opened up a 30-day public comment period that ended on June 9. The public responded with over 47,000 comments. Over 40,000 of them – over 85 percent – urged the agency to implement the rule. Most of these comments weren’t exactly handwritten, heartfelt letters though – as is usual for public comments on regulatory changes, the bulk of the responses were via form letter. The USDA made sure to point out that of those 40,000 ‘implement it’ letters, 34,600 were form letters. They didn’t bother to provide similar information concerning the under 7,000 letters from those who wanted the USDA to delay, suspend, or withdraw the rule. I don’t think that was an oversight.
The Organic Trade Association, which is the main lobbying group for organic producers, filed suit against the USDA, arguing that it unlawfully delayed the rule as well as ignored the overwhelming percentage of public comments calling for implementation of the law. Lawsuits concerning administrative rules are incredibly common, and often take many years to resolve. If you’re a fan of the status quo that’s pretty good news, because every day you delay the implementation of a rule, you save yourself the cost of complying with it. In this case, even if everything moves along incredibly fast by regulatory lawsuit standards, I wouldn’t bet on conditions getting any better for organic-certified animals before the next presidential election.
 “Foodborne Illnesses Hit 24,000 Americans in 2016,” Medscape, accessed November 28, 2017, http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/878896.
 “Farm Animal Welfare,” ASPCA, accessed November 28, 2017, https://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/farm-animal-welfare.
 United States Department of Agriculture, “Organic Livestock Requirements,” accessed November 28, 2017, https://www.ams.usda.gov/sites/default/files/media/Organic%20Livestock%20Requirements.pdf.
 “National Organic Program (NOP); Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices,” Federal Register, November 14, 2017, https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2017/11/14/2017-24675/national-organic-program-nop-organic-livestock-and-poultry-practices.