The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently proposed stricter animal welfare standards for organic chicken and meat in the multibillion-dollar market that is rapidly expanding each year.
The rules would ensure that all livestock, including poultry, have enough space to lie down, turn around, stand up and fully stretch their limbs. In addition, beaks must remain intact, tails cannot be cut and poultry houses must have fresh air and ventilation.
“This will support the continued growth in the organic livestock and poultry sectors, and ensure consumer confidence in the organic label,” Miles McEvoy, the head of USDA’s organic program said in an article.
The article also states the retail market for organic products is valued at almost $40 billion in the U.S. alone and the number of certified organic operations within the nation increased by almost 12% between 2014 and 2015. That marks the highest growth rate since 2008 and an increase of nearly 300% since the department began counting operations in 2002.
The broadest changes proposed by USDA would cover outdoor access for poultry, suggesting standards for how densely poultry can be stocked as well as minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements. For example, the rules would require poultry have access to areas that are at least 50% covered in soil. Hen houses would not be allowed to only have a porch; producers would have to provide additional outdoor space.
In addition to clean water and direct access to sun and shade, the rules would require producers to design facilities to encourage all birds to go outside on a daily basis. The outdoor areas would have to have “suitable enrichment” to entice birds to go outside, McEvoy said.
The amount of outside access for poultry has been a subject of debate, as some food safety advocates have expressed concerns that more outdoor access may increase the chances of Salmonella contamination. The Food and Drug Administration issued guidance in 2013 to try to help organic egg producers better prevent Salmonella, but not everyone is convinced that these new rules have the producers best interest in mind.
Jim Byrum, president of the Michigan Agri-Business Association, said the rules could slow business for egg producers, which could in turn reduce the demand for organic corn and soybeans that the chickens eat.
“Eliminating porches that already allow organic hens to be outside would render tens of millions of dollars of investment by many organic egg producers obsolete,” Byrum said in the article. “The proposal also makes deeply unrealistic assumptions about food safety, requiring direct exposure of hens to the outdoors.”
McEvoy said USDA understands the rules would mean additional investment for some businesses but added the rules would “assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard.”
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