When the USDA first published the National Organic Plan, they were shocked to find that many Organic farmers wanted stricter regulations. It’s not common for a farmer to ask for regulations of any kind, let alone more.
From that time, the USDA, working with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), has been implementing more specific and defined regulations to verify Organic compliance. The last major shift was when they published the pasture standard, which required specific pasture requirements for ruminant livestock (i.e. cows, sheep, goats).
Since they established better requirements for ruminants, people have long been waiting for more specific requirements for pigs and chickens. Many, many, “Organic” farms raise their layer chickens and pigs in confinement, doing the bare minimum to retain Organic status. It is the danger of following the letter, but not the spirit of the law. As early as 2011 the NOSB has been recommending to the USDA that they form a better standard for pigs and poultry, but they’ve dragged their heals.
January 18th, the USDA’s marketing service announced that they are officially releasing new standards for Livestock and Poultry practices, bringing the nagging problem to a conclusion.
The new regulations, that are officially known as “Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices” or OLPP, accomplish several things, but we’ll focus on the big changes this brings for Poultry.
Definitions of Terms
As you may imagine, when trying to find a loophole to avoid doing something in a law, people can become very particular about what a word means or doesn’t mean. To avoid this, most laws now start with a definition of terms, making it very clear what they do and do not mean to say. Even in the NOP they keep such detail, with these new updates they made things even more clear.
With poultry, they made very important definitions in defining what indoors and outdoors actually mean. Over the years, simply saying “outdoors” has lead to having small screened porches that may provide a bit of fresh air, but no access to any kind of pasture.
To remedy this disparate definition, they changed the definition to clear it up. Now, the “Outdoors” is defined as being in contact with the soil. As per 205.241(c)(2) “At least 50 percent of outdoor space must be soil. Outdoor space with soil must include maximal vegetative cover appropriate for the season, climate, geography, species of livestock, and stage of production. Vegetative cover must be maintained in a manner that does not provide harborage for rodents and other pests.”
The central portion of these updates were focused on space requirements for chickens of various stages of life. This has been a hotly contest issue for some years, most large layer barns being resistant to altering the livestock density they have maintained, but has finally reached a median resolution.
To keep things reasonable for both large and small producers, they have based their space requirements by weight, rather than a per bird basis. It was written thoroughly to include not only the different stages of life and classes of Chickens, but also to the kind of housing they lived in.
(8) For layers (Gallus gallus), indoor stocking density must not exceed (live bird weight):
(i) Mobile housing: 4.5 pounds per square foot.
(ii) Aviary housing: 4.5 pounds per square foot.
(iii) Slatted/mesh floor housing: 3.75 pounds per square foot.
(iv) Floor litter housing: 3.0 pounds per square foot.
(v) Other housing: 2.25 pounds per square foot.
(9) For pullets (Gallus gallus), indoor stocking density must not exceed 3.0 pounds of bird per square foot.
(10) For broilers (Gallus gallus), indoor stocking density must not exceed 5.0 pounds of bird per square foot.
They continued by adding the outdoor stocking density to be:
Layers – 1 square foot for every 2.25 lbs.
Pullets 1 square foot for every 3.0 lbs.
Broilers 1 square foot for every 5.0 lbs.
The End Result
Since the release of this addition to the NOP there has been some backlash, many of the large poultry producers maintain that it is too much to expect from them. They eagerly hope for Donald Trump’s administration to change it (I think they have more important issues to deal with, but that’s my opinion).
Smaller producers and humane activists belief that it was too lenient, observing that Europe’s Organic Program allows greater indoor and outdoor space for poultry. The lesson is simply that you cannot satisfy everyone.
These new standards will not be enforced until March 21st, 2022. Giving more than enough time for bigger barns to be built, fences to be put up and yards expanded. In five years the existing poultry operations can adjust to the new standards and complain about something else.
What does all this mean to you, the consumer? Who purchases their eggs in a grocery store, hoping that the green seal on it’s carton means that the birds were raised in a happier and healthier environment. Quite simply, it means that you can be assured of something more. Rather than expecting that chickens would have access to sufficient outdoor space to “express their chickeness” and discover that there was no such requirement, you can now rest in the knowledge that your Organic eggs and chicken from a grocery store actually went outside; That those chickens felt dirt between their toes, breathed fresh air, and occasionally ate a bug.
Do you think that knowledge is worth the extra dollar? I do.