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Organic Welfare Standards Proposals: (Yet Another) Missed Opportunity

After years of delays, the U.S. National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has finally agreed the organic standards should encompass the treatment and welfare of animals. The big question is: will the proposed welfare standards actually change anything?

As detailed in the National Organic Program’s (NOP) Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, the proposed welfare standards would introduce a range of new requirements on the living conditions of organic animals, including transportation, slaughter and minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements. The proposals are intended to address what many see as a long-standing—and gaping—hole in the U.S. organic standards concerning the welfare of animals on organic farms, not to mention the huge shortcoming in consumer expectations of what the “organic” label actually stands for.

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Big Ag’s Gifts for 2014

It's a tradition of mine to write a note of sincere gratitude to Big Ag for the many "gifts" they've bestowed upon us all over the past 12 months relating to food animal production. Gifts that we didn't really want, need, or—in some cases—didn't even know about. Here's my top 10 for 2014.
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False Organic Egg Claims Come Home To Roost

I’m sorry to say it, but news that a large-scale “organic” egg producer is being sued for making misleading marketing claims about the welfare of its chickens comes as no real surprise. To be honest, I’m more shocked that it’s taken this long to make the headlines. Several news agencies are reporting that the Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has filed a class-action lawsuit against Judy's Family Farm Organic Eggs and Petaluma Egg Farm for allegedly violating California's consumer protection laws. Judy's Family Farm Organic Eggs cartons feature images of hens roaming on an expansive green field, while the carton wording states that the hens are “raised in wide open spaces in Sonoma Valley, where they are free to ‘roam, scratch, and play’.” However, the ALDF claim that the organic hens at Judy’s Family Farm “are crammed in covered sheds with no outdoor access. Implying their hens are free-range when they are not provides an unfair advantage over actual free-range egg producers, and also cheats consumers.” The complaint? The packaging used by these egg producers leads consumers to mistakenly believe the eggs come from free-range hens. From what I know about the farm in question, I couldn’t agree more.
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Organic Milk: Are You Getting What You Pay For?

On the heels of a previous report highlighting lack of enforcement and oversight in our food system, the U.S. Office of Inspector General’s (OIG) new report on whether milk marketed as organic actually meets the National Organic Program’s standards is a real wake-up call to the organic community. And so it should be. Consumers pay a significant premium for organic products and rightly expect transparency and oversight. However, the OIG's new report, "Agricultural Marketing Service National Organic Program - Organic Milk," exposes major failings of the National Organic Program’s (NOP) certification and auditing systems. At a time when consumers are turning their backs on industrialized farming systems – and genetically modified (GM) farming in particular – the new report raises real questions about exactly what people are paying for when they buy organic milk.
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In Harmony

As director of the Animal Welfare Approved program, I recently had the opportunity to visit the Arapaho Ranch, in north-central Wyoming. At 580,000 acres, it is the largest USDA certified organic ranch in the U.S. - and one of the most inspiring ranches that I have ever seen. Arapaho Ranch is actually part of its environment, working in harmony with nature, rather than trying to control it. My visit began at the front of the local high school in the town of Thermopolis, where I met with David Stoner, who manages the Arapaho Ranch on behalf of the Tribal Council of the Northern Arapaho Nation. David is one of those people who can say a huge amount with very few words, and as we drove out to the first pasture it quickly became clear that the Arapaho Tribe had struck gold by appointing him to manage their ranch.
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Food Labels: Don’t take your eye off the ball

Yet another article highlights the importance of consumer engagement in food labeling. According to LancasterOnline.com's Mary Beth Schweigert, lack of oversight in National Organic Program has created a "chasm between consumer expectations and actual industry practices." Ms. Schwigert notes the challenges that the NOP, now in its twelfth year, faces in terms of its dual mission to protect agriculture while simultaneously protecting the consumer. The NOP has drawn significant criticism on its lax pasture requirements - 80,000 public comments to be exact. However, even adequate standards are only as good as the enforcement behind them. Schwigert reports a startlingly low number of citations in the first seven years of the program - only $20,000 for three fraudulent operators in a $23 billion U.S. organic food industry. National Organic Coalition (an industry watchdog group) policy coordinator Liana Hoodes responded to this issue, explaining that strong national organic regulations are worthless without consistent oversight and enforcement. She added, "It will either clean up its act or get surpassed by many other labels."
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