The Obama administration is proposing new requirements for how animals are to be treated when their meat is sold with the certified organic label.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture rule clarifies how organic producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry throughout the animals' lives, including when they are transported and slaughtered.
The rules set maximum indoor and outdoor living space requirements. Barns, pens, coops and other shelters, for example, have to be big enough for the animals to lie down, stand up and fully stretch their limbs without touching other animals or the sides of the shelter. They must also be designed to allow the animals to express normal patterns of behavior.
Under the USDA’s proposal, organic livestock would also receive “unencumbered” access to the outdoors at all times unless the animals need to be confined to protect them from predators.
“As part of the definition of the outdoors, livestock must have access to the soil in a manner that maintains or improves the natural resources of the farm and does not degrade soil or water quality,” the agency said in its rulemaking.
Sick, injured, weak, disabled, blind and lame animals would have to be medically treated or euthanized.
The USDA estimates the rule will cost organic farmers $9.5 million to $24.1 million per year over the next 13 years, and public benefits are estimated to range from $14.7 million to $62.6 million per year.
The Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) said the proposed regulations are “desperately needed.”
"The lack of specific requirements for animal welfare has resulted in great variability in the level of animal care provided by organic producers,” Dena Jones, the AWI’s farm animal policy director, said in a statement. “Some producers raise animals on pasture with high welfare, while others raise animals in a manner similar to conventional, intensive agriculture. In some instances organically raised animals are never even given the opportunity to go outdoors.”
The AWI urged the agency to expeditiously finalize the rule.
The public will have 60 days to submit comments on the agency’s proposal once the rule is published in the Federal Register.