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Chickens head out to fresh pasture.


Organic Chickens Need Room to Roam!

September 29, 2022

by Tom Chapman, Organic Trade Association CEO

Poultry Regulations Getting Long-Awaited Revamp

Organic egg sales in the U.S. have more than tripled over the last 10 years. So have the sales of organic poultry. That’s amazing growth, and there is good reason for it.

Shoppers don’t just want healthy food—they want their food to be grown using environmentally friendly practices and from animals that have been raised humanely. Recent research commissioned by the Organic Trade Association shows that 75% of Americans are concerned about the treatment of animals by the meat and dairy industry. Animal welfare and outdoor access are core value propositions for organic shoppers, and they are willing to pay more for these benefits.

Organic buyers want to feel confident that the organic eggs and poultry they purchase and serve their families come from chickens that have access to pasture and the outdoors, fresh air, and sunlight. If that confidence is shaken, the value of the organic label is questioned and the consumer trust that organic farmers work so hard every day to honor is broken.

The trust that consumers have in organic is well deserved. Organic agriculture is regulated by the most stringent set of rules governing any form of agriculture. Farmers voluntarily choose to go organic and to abide by these strict organic standards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), through its National Organic Program, sets the federal standards for the production and handling of all organic products certified to the USDA Organic label. However, organic standards once approved are not set in stone, and are under constant review in a public and transparent process to ensure that they reflect evolving understandings about soil, climate, health, and animal welfare.

Closing the Loopholes

Outdoor access has always been a core tenet for organic poultry and livestock production. USDA organic regulations require that all certified organic operations must give their animals “access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight.” Unfortunately, these regulations have not been consistently enforced, resulting in some large poultry companies utilizing narrow, enclosed porches—usually with a cement floor—instead of true outdoor access to meet this requirement. The result is inconsistent animal welfare standards for organic chickens and an unlevel playing field for all the organic farmers who treat their birds right.

Organic poultry and livestock producers have been clamoring for more robust animal welfare standards for nearly 20 years. In 2010, USDA issued a final rule that created clear standards for grazing and access to pasture for organic dairy and cattle. The same needs to be done for organic poultry.

After years of public engagement in the rulemaking process, USDA published the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule in 2017 to clarify its animal welfare standards, with an emphasis on poultry. But the fully vetted rule was abruptly rescinded due to political pressure and entrenched interests. The Organic Trade Association has spearheaded the battle to get USDA to do the right thing, and after the unwarranted withdrawal of the OLPP rule, we took the government to court over its failure to uphold organic standards. In response to our lawsuit and to continued pressure from the organic industry, USDA finally published a new proposed version of the rule in August—the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPS) rule—and is currently seeking public comments.

The OLPS proposed rule creates clear standards for outdoor access for organic poultry including minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements, and further clarifies living conditions, health care, transportation, and slaughter practices to support animal welfare for all organic avian and mammalian livestock species.

Most importantly, the rule clarifies that screened-in, enclosed porches do not qualify as sufficient outdoor space for organic chickens.

Having clear, consistent, and enforceable standards is paramount for the organic sector to not only maintain consumer trust but to ensure that farms and businesses of all sizes have a fair shot at competing in the marketplace by meeting a minimum set of requirements. The OLPS proposed rule will create a more level playing field and expand market opportunities for organic dairy, meat, poultry, and eggs.

Make Your Voice Heard!

The Organic Trade Association has launched a full-court press to let USDA know how important it is that the situation at long last be corrected; how important it is that organic animal welfare standards be strengthened, greater consistency among organic producers and certifiers be created, and consumer expectations for organic products are met.

The government’s comment period ends Oct. 11. The more the public weighs in on this the better, so we are urging you to make your voice heard. It’s important that not just organic farmers and organic food companies speak up, but also that organic consumers let the government know how much you depend on that USDA Organic seal to represent meaningful and strong standards that ensure the healthiest food for you and your family.

Tell USDA you support the OLPS proposed rule to strengthen organic animal welfare standards and ensure that all organic chickens have room to roam!

The benefits of organic are numerous. Organic provides a safe, healthy choice to consumers. Organic provides economic opportunities for farmers, creating jobs and lifting rural economies, while utilizing sustainable farming practices that are proven to help mitigate the threat of climate change.

The organic industry takes very seriously its contract with the consumer, and organic farmers dedicate themselves to grow crops and raise animals in a way that earns the trust of the public. The organic sector has always welcomed clear and fair standards under which to operate, and we’re encouraged that the government is now at long last moving forward on this sound and much-needed regulation.

About the Organic Trade Association

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for organic agriculture and products in North America. OTA is the leading voice for the organic trade in the United States, representing more than 9,500 organic businesses across 50 states. Its members include growers, shippers, processors, certifiers, farmers' associations, distributors, importers, exporters, consultants, retailers and others. OTA's Board of Directors is democratically elected by its members. OTA's mission is to promote and protect organic with a unifying voice that serves and engages its diverse members from farm to marketplace.

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