New Animal Welfare Standards for Organic Meat and Dairy Products Are Withdrawn. Now What?

by Lois Godfrey Wye

On January 19, 2017, the U.S Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a final rule imposing new requirements on suppliers of organic meats and dairy products. The new rule set certain standards for animal care, to “create[] greater consistency in organic livestock and poultry practice standards” and “to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent and uniform standard.”[1] The effective date of the regulations was repeatedly delayed, however, and on March 13, 2018, the USDA announced it was withdrawing the rule. No new standards for animal care will be required for organic meat or dairy products. Why did the agency change its mind? And what does it mean for us, as Christians who care about how animals in our food supply are treated?

 Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

Sprinkles | Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur | We Animals 

The Rule

First, let’s take a quick look at what the regulations would—and would not—have done. Kitty Block, Acting CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, summarized the requirements this way in her blog, A Humane Nation:

[The regulations] encompassed an array of housing, husbandry, and management standards, standards that consumers expect when they buy organic products. The rule prohibited cruel practices like “tail docking” of cattle and transporting animals too sick or injured to endure the journey. The rule also ensured that animals raised under the standard could not be tightly confined, and it set minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for egg-laying chickens. Importantly, the rule closed a loophole in current regulations that allow large poultry companies to skirt the law and use screened-in porches to satisfy “outdoor access” requirements.[2]

Gene Baur, of Farm Sanctuary, however, points out that even these protections were “minimal,” that many cruel practices would have been permitted, and “and ultimately, animals raised for organic certification, like other animals exploited for food, are treated more like commodities than like living feeling animals . . . The updated organic rule limits some of the abuses routinely endured by farm animals, but it still places commercial interests above ethical considerations.”[3]

What Happened?

So why are these improvements, minimal or otherwise, not going into effect? After the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, the new administration wanted to review the rule, so it delayed the implementation date, and took public comment on whether or not the regulations should be withdrawn. Public comments overwhelmingly favored allowing the regulations to go into effect—by a margin of 63,000 comments supporting the rule to 50 comments opposing it[4]—but the USDA determined, after reexamining the statute under which the regulations had been issued, that it did not have legal authority to impose requirements regarding animal care.  Instead, the agency believes its authority is limited to restricting use of chemicals or synthetic substances in feed, nontherapeutic use of medications, and similar activities for organically-produced meats and dairy products. It also believes that the costs and benefits of the regulations had been inaccurately calculated and that the costs of the regulations outweighed the benefits.

In assessing the benefits of the regulation, the agency did not consider benefits to the animals themselves, which it called “speculative.”[5] The issue is addressed only in the context of economic benefits, and the agency observed that “it is uncertain that organic farmers and consumers would see positive impacts from implementation of the OLPP rule. The assertion that the OLPP final rule would result in economic benefits from healthier animals is not supported by information or research linking outdoor access on pasture or vegetation to improved economic outcomes for producers.”[6] Consideration of what may or may not be humane treatment does not appear to have entered into the calculus.

A Christian Response

It is, of course, heartbreaking to lose an opportunity for real improvement in the way at least some of the animals in our food system are treated. But, without debating the correctness of the agency’s decision, what does this mean for us, as Christians who care about animals? 

First, as Christians, we do not have the luxury of giving up hope. Writing this on Holy Saturday, I think of the words of Fr. James Martin, “We are called to the wait of the Christian, which is called hope. It is an active waiting; it knows that, even in the worst of situations, even in the darkest times, God is powerfully at work, even if we cannot see it clearly right now.”[7] Because hope is an “active waiting,” we can and must continue to work for change and to support animal welfare improvements whenever the opportunity presents itself. This is the work of caring for God’s creation and bringing God’s kingdom nearer.

Second, even as we continue to work for institutional change to benefit animals, both the rule and its roll back underscore the limitations of that process. As Gene Baur explained, the rule “still place[d] commercial interests above ethical considerations,” and the animals were still seen as commodities rather than living beings. While the rule would have meant definite improvement for some animals in the food system, they were limited changes for a limited number of animals. We cannot depend on Caesar to implement our ethics for us. Many organic farmers who supported this rule did so because of consumer demand for a reliable organic label that would provide assurance of certain standards.[8] This is a testament to the importance of personal choices in driving change. Our choices and our behavior matter—not just to us, but to those around us. We need to live our ethics. 

If we choose to eat meat or dairy products, we have to do the research to find suppliers who meet our ethical requirements. That means we need to know what food labels really mean—which can be a challenge, because they are often misleading.[9] It also means we need to look past the labels to find out whatever we can about the brand. We are responsible for our choices, and we cannot pass the implications of our actions on others.[10] 

It also means that—whether we choose to eat meat and dairy products or not—we have an opportunity for education. We can make sure that people who do so choose are aware that “organic” does not mean “humane,” and if they are concerned about animal welfare, they, too, need to understand labels and suppliers. There is a great deal of misunderstanding among consumers, and if we have lost an opportunity to see some industry-wide standards implemented and clarity in labeling, we have not lost the opportunity to continue to speak out to our friends, our families, and others to help them understand what labels mean—and what they do not mean. 

For Christians, loss is never defeat, and as we live in hope and gratitude, we will continue to seek ways to bring the Kingdom nearer.   

Cropped photo - me at WARL event.jpg

Lois Godfrey Wye has a Masters Degree in the Theological Studies from Wesley Theological Seminary, where her studies focused on the intersection of animal welfare and Christian theology. She is an environmental lawyer in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the Board of Directors of the Humane Rescue Alliance. She blogs (occasionally) at Dominion In The Image of God

References

[1] 82 Federal Register 7042 (Jan 19, 2017).  

[2] A Humane Nation, March 13, 2018.

[3] Farm Sanctuary, Compassionate Communities Campaign, Modest Organic Farm Animal Welfare Standards Draw Ire of Agribusiness, undated, https://ccc.farmsanctuary.org/organic-standards-draw-ire/.

[4] 83 Federal Register 10775 (March 13, 2018)

[5] 83 Federal Register 10779.  https://www.federalregister.gov/d/2018-05029/p-56

[6] Id.

[7] Father James Martin: Holy Saturday Teaches Us The Right Way to Wait, America, The Jesuit Review, April 15, 2017, https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2017/04/15/father-james-martin-holy-saturday-teaches-christians-right-way-wait.

[8] 83 Federal Register 10779.

[9] The Animal Welfare Institute has this helpful guide.

[10] There is a confession of sin used in the Episcopal Church which asks forgiveness for “the evil done on our behalf.” Enriching our Worship, p. 56.  Reprinted here. https://www.facebook.com/stcolumbasmaine/posts/499669426761028 I cannot say this without thinking of animals on factory farms, fur farms, in labs or circuses, or other places so terrible for them for the supposed benefit of humans.