11 March 2010

New USDA organic labeling fails to address animal welfare concerns


Humane food labeling with terms such as naturally raised, free range, cage-free, and organic is the fastest growing sector of the U.S food industry thanks, in part, to movies like Food Inc and best-selling books like Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Omnivore's Dilemma by frequent Oprah guest Michael Pollan.

Last month the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced new rules that will go into effect June of this year stating that at least 30% of food that cows ingest must come from grazing. If the dairy farm is located in a mild climate, like California or the Southeast, cows are expected to exceed the 30% or 120 days mandated as a minimum by law. Organic livestock raised for meat must also be allowed to graze in pastures.

While the new labeling rules are admirable, Farm Sanctuary, the nation’s leading farm animal protection organization, cautions consumers that “organic” labeling is often misleading and does not ensure that animals are treated well.

“American consumers are increasingly aware of and concerned about the cruel treatment of animals exploited for human consumption,” said Gene Baur, Farm Sanctuary's president and co-founder. “The livestock industry has responded to this growing awareness by marketing their products with claims like ‘humane,’ ‘natural,’ ‘cage-free,’ and ‘organic.’ But the reality for farm animals living in these conditions is hardly as sunny as retailers would like consumers to believe. We appreciate the recent improvements in organic standards and are glad that deputy secretary of the USDA, Kathleen Merrigan, sees the current move as a ‘down payment’ on future reforms, but there are still serious animal cruelty concerns that need to be addressed.

“These latest reforms point to commonly abused loopholes in organic certification. While current USDA National Organic Program Regulations mandate ‘access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment,’ these vague terms offer little comfort to farm animals. Variables such as the number and size of access points and how frequently they must be opened, as well as the quality of the outdoor area are left undefined. As a result, certified organic products may have come from animals who have been crowded by the thousands into a building with a single small, rarely open exit leading to a barren dirt lot — a far cry from the paradise consumers are led to envision. What’s more, even the few standards that do exist are poorly enforced. Against federal regulations, some organic certifiers have chosen not to require that the ‘access to outdoors’ clause be met, and despite this, they still obtain organic certification.”

Farm Sanctuary compiled a 71 page report called Truth Behind Labels which identifies animal product labeling schemes – an important resource for all consumers. For more information about the Truth Behind Labels Campaign visit farmsanctuary.org.

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Photo Credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/bellatrix6