One hen in North Carolina lives her life inside a dimly-lit shed with only occasional access to a cramped, concrete porch; another hen in California can peck at the grass each day and take a dust bath in the sun. Two vastly different lives – but eggs from both get the same important label: “USDA Certified Organic.”

Since the USDA began regulating organic agriculture in 2000, consumers have expected—and paid a premium for—an idyllic version of “organic” animal welfare. But in many segments of the organic market, a grimmer reality prevails. Exploding demand for organic products and the absence of clear organic animal welfare standards have allowed the organic market to be flooded with large-scale industrial producers who profit from the public’s desire for higher-welfare animal products without actually providing meaningful animal welfare.


According to USDA’s 2014 organic census, organic product sales by U.S. farms increased 83 percent between 2007 and 2012. At the same time, the average number of animals per USDA organic farm is rising, presumably because of more crowded living conditions and more industrialized methods. From 2008 to 2014, the number of organic certified egg-laying hens more than doubled, yet the number of egg farms dropped.

What’s clear is that, without strong animal welfare regulations in place, factory farms are taking a stronger foothold in the organic market, undercutting farmers who employ higher welfare methods and consumer confidence in the integrity of the label.

Until now, the USDA has done little to stem the flood of low-welfare producers into the organic market, but to its credit, USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP) is now determined to tackle the problem. Last month the NOP released a long-awaited set of welfare standards for animals raised under the USDA Certified Organic label. The proposed rule promises to correct the wide disparity between consumers’ expectations of animal welfare under the organic label and the reality of what USDA currently requires.

This rule is 15 years in the making, during which time industry has had ample opportunity to provide stakeholder input. Now, as the NOP endeavors to see this hard work through, Big Ag is waging an attack to kill the proposal. On Thursday, members of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee will attempt to add appropriations language in an effort to obstruct the organic animal welfare rule.

Meanwhile, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and other industry players have asked USDA to prolong the rulemaking process. Any delay at this stage would jeopardize this administration’s ability to finalize the rule before its tenure comes to an end.

Bringing the proposed rule to fruition has been a hard-fought collective effort. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB)—NOP’s equitably-constituted advisory board—has had animal welfare on its agenda since 2000. The ASPCA and other stakeholder groups representing consumer advocates, environmental groups, and organic producers small and large have contributed feedback on NOSB’s animal welfare recommendations through a commendably transparent and collaborative process. The NOP has based its proposed rule on NOSB’s intensively deliberated recommendations.

Stakeholders truly interested in improving organic animal welfare standards have been working toward a solution for years. However, several of those groups seeking a delay in the rulemaking process have never – in the sixteen years this topic has been discussed – filed comments with NOSB either supporting or rebutting the proposed animal welfare standards. Yet now, in the eleventh hour, they seek a derailment. Meanwhile, the lives of over 50 million animals raised under the USDA organic label each year hang in the balance. They don’t have time to wait.

Consumers, responsible farmers who provide meaningful welfare, and animals – including all the hens waiting for their chance in the sun – are depending on this rule. They have waited long enough. The USDA should stay the course and keep this critical rule on track.

Suzanne McMillan is Farm Animal Welfare Program Content Director at the ASPCA.