By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She now spends much of her time in Asia and is currently working on a book about textile artisans.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a new rule on Friday that shelves a previous rule that would have set minimal living conditions for hens that produce eggs certified as “USDA Organic”.
Under this new rule, chickens that produce organic eggs need not be treated any more humanely than those raised on factory farms.
On January 19, 2017– the day before Trump was inaugurated– the USDA had adopted a rule that would have set some basic animal welfare standards for organic livestock and poultry products. In addition to avian living conditions, the rule included provisions for livestock handling and transport for slaughter, and expanded and clarified requirements for livestock care and production practices, and for mammalian living conditions. The measures were initially due to come into effect in March, but were delayed by the incoming administration..
According to a recent Consumer Reports survey, 60% of those surveyed believe it is highly important that the animals used to produce organic food are raised on farms with high standards of animal welfare. And 83% of consumers who identify themselves as regularly buying organic eggs say it’s highly important that hens who produce organic eggs are allowed to move freely outdoors.
Now, regardless of their beliefs that animal welfare is important, I honestly don’t know whether consumers understand that the organic label doesn’t certify that animals are raised according to sustainable, humane farming practices. But many of the big farming interests that seek organic certification want consumers to think so. As the Washington Post reports:
[Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, which has long sought stricter standards and stricter enforcement from the USDA] and others accused those large nominally “USDA Organic” farms of fooling consumers regarding animal welfare at their facilities.
“They are trying to trick the public and sell their products at a premium under a deficient organic label,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. “They want the profit that comes from the halo effect of the organic label, but they don’t want to adhere to common-sense animal welfare standards. I don’t think consumers think that organically raised animals are living in a giant confinement shed.”
And Friends of the Earth also criticized last week’s USDA decision, according to Oregon’s The Bulletin,
“Trump’s decision to cave to a handful of powerful agribusiness interests by scrapping the organic animal welfare rule is a slap in the face to organic farmers and to the millions of consumers who have put their trust into the organic label,” said Lisa Archer, the food and agriculture program director for Friends of the Earth.
What Do the Producers Say?
Well, it depends on which ones you ask. According to The Bulletin, “Smaller producers who provide open yards for egg-laying hens have complained that the loophole lets competitors reap the premium price of organic eggs without substantially changing their operations.”
And, what about the behemoths themselves? Over to The Bulletin:
Livestock and poultry companies, however, complained that the rules went beyond the intent of the original law establishing organic certification, which covered only feed and medicine.
Organic Standards Co-Opted
Okay, I confess, I share the outrage over allowing producers to charge a premium price for a factory-farming product. But I do realize the organic label has long been co-opted, and that merely buying organic doesn’t really mean one’s buying the humanely, sustainably-raised food that one wants to eat. (Nor, I should mention, is it in any way locally-produced– but that’s another discussion.)
Yet deficient, watered-down organic standards aren’t a new problem. And I wonder where the previous administration was during it’s eight years in power– and why it took until the very eve of Trump’s inauguration for the USDA to promulgate the (extremely modest) standards that were just shelved.
I also think it’s a bit rich that the Organic Trade Association sued the Trump USDA for its “slow pace” in enacting the January 2017 rules, as the Bulletin mentions:
The Organic Trade Association, which has sued the USDA over its slow pace on enacting the rules, said it was “dismayed” at Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement. The lawsuit is still pending.
“This groundless step by USDA is being taken against a backdrop of nearly universal support among the organic businesses and consumers for the fully vetted rules that USDA has now rejected,” the association said in a written statement.
The current USDA crew may have since January delayed implementing some last-minute rules. But their predecessors had eight years to establish standards. Why weren’t they in place much, much, earlier?
This failing, by the way, isn’t limited to the USDA, but applied to many other regulatory initiatives undertaken by the previous administration. The failure to promulgate regulations until late in the day meant that these were ripe for overturn if any Republican won the 2016 election (especially if backstopped by a Republican-controlled Congress). Trump and Congress have seized the authority provided by the Congressional Review Act to advance its deregulatory agenda (see here, here, here and here). These draconian procedures could not have been invoked if rule-making procedures had been completed earlier in the previous administration. Additionally, other initiatives, such as the Clean Power Plan, would have been less vulnerable to scuttling if they’d been implemented earlier.
The survival of these regulatory initiatives wouldn’t solely be due to superior legal arguments, either. One reason the fiduciary rule has not been killed outright is that companies had taken steps to comply with it, and once these steps are taken– and considerable investments made– they have no wish nor incentive to see a policy reversal, and in fact, actively resist such a change (see my further discussion in Fiduciary Rule: Helps Not Hurts Wall Street, So Full Rescission Unlikely). So, although Trump clearly had this rule in his deregulatory crosshairs, the Labor Department has gone forward with the new rule (albeit subject to some delays).
Back to the chickens and their eggs. The previous administration is now enjoying a reputation for regulatory innovation that’s not supported by its record. So it’s not surprising this should extend to something as basic as chickens and eggs.
The sad standard for what qualifies to be called an organic egg didn’t miraculously hatch last week. Too little was done, too late, before Trump became president, and in part is the reason we’re where we’re at today.
Eggs are not only one of the most unbelievably cruel foods in the Standard American Diet.
They’re also the one of the most expensive (on a per-calorie basis; one egg white has just 17 calories), and least food-safe.
The egg/chicken industry has been pushing the “contrarian” anti-science idea that eggs are some kind of super food. But you can get all the nutrients in eggs in other foods.
Unlike a lot of other consumer choices, you are directly doing a lot of harm with each dozen eggs you buy, since a laying hen may only produce 300 eggs a year. Your daily commute may only increase global warming by 0.000000000001 degrees, but if you eat an egg a day, there’s a chicken being tortured somewhere just for you.
I will never stop being amazed that factory farming (i.e., virtually all animal products) isn’t one of the central progressive issues. Corey Booker of all people is apparently the strongest US Senator on animal welfare.
factory farming is an an abomination
dear nc readers: please consider a plant based diet!
Re: Booker: Maybe there aren’t giant poultry farms in New Jersey.
There aren’t many giant poultry farms here in Massachusetts, either, but I don’t see Ed Markey or Elizabeth Warren sticking their necks out on this issue in the Senate (though the state legislature did just pass what may be the most advanced such law in the world on this issue).
re the Massachusetts law – apparently the law only affects one farm in western mass – hence it passed.
Thanks, Lupe. I’m not as well informed on this issue as I should be, but I thought that the law would apply to “imports” as well, so all those farms in Vermont, NH, NY and further afield would have to carve out a section for their “Massachusetts” hens.
I had expected more pushback from the grocers, but then at this point few of the big chains are headquartered here anyway and they might have been wary of angering local voters.
Wonder if any of this actually changes eggs farmed in California. I’m thinking not as animal welfare standards were enacted in California at the state level by ballot initiative for all products not just organic, and even egg producers in other states had some pressure to comply. Probably a more reasonable way to get things done than expecting neoliberal DINO presidents to do much.
There are also humane certifications for those going the voting with one’s dollar route.
The sad truth is Trump probably cares more about Obama’s policies (he personally cases for weird vengeance reasons, his administration for standard Republican anti-regulation reasons) than Obama does or ever did. Obama put in his time, got rich, and devil take the hindmost.
I’ve often thought it all goes back to the 2011 Washington Correspondents Dinner where Obama raked him over the coals, all while Trump sat there fuming.
YT link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9mzJhvC-8E
We raise our own chickens for eggs. They’re the most spoiled birds on the planet.
Also, eggs go way beyond just calories. They are one of the most dynamic ingredients in anything. I throw them into indian food and chinese food. They play a huge role in baking and other cuisine.
The best food is the food you’re closest to. Our freezer right now is either filled with meat we harvested (old hens, venison, a groundhog) or meat from a suburban farm a half hour away (pork, more chicken).
Sure, if you disconnect yourself entirely from the food system and insist that outsourcing all your production is necessary, you’re going to lose something. That includes vegetable production, too, because soy, for instance, is a plant we don’t fully understand yet.
I started keeping chickens about 8 years ago. I didn’t even really like eggs – just got them to control ticks and keep me amused. There’s nothing like fresh eggs from your own back yard. The girls are on a hiatus now until the days start getting longer. I’ll do without rather than buy anything from the grocery store.
I’m fortunate to live in a rural area with an abundance of local food. In my freezer are two bags of local strawberries that look like jewels, and remind me of summer. When the come in to season I’ll run out to a local farm stand at lunch, buy a couple of quarts and eat them right out of the box. If I’m feeling generous I’ll leave them out on my desk for my office mates to share.
Agree – I think eggs from the grocery store are disgusting – they taste and smell awful. The eggs that come from our friends and our farmer are delicious. Yes they are different colors, odd sizes and have “stuff” on them. I have had guests in my home get grossed out about the “stuff” on the eggs, but don’t seem to be grossed out at all by the cruelty inflicted on the animals and people involved in the big ag food production scheme.
It also really bugs me that we have to be “fortunate” to have food that isn’t laden with chemicals or is harvested from/by people/animals that are horribly mistreated. I am “fortunate” to have the time, energy and resources to have a small garden and access to several fantastic year-round farmer’s markets but am well aware of the extra time and money it takes to step outside of the system. Argh.
cocomaan, I think for the vast majority of people, just giving up eggs and meat is a lot more likely than a backyard barnyard or hunting. In fact, has any one done the carbon footprint math on backyard farms? No matter where the animals are, if you’re eating animals, you’re consuming 3X the plants you would otherwise eat if you just ate plants.
And there are great egg replacers out their for baked goods. Eggs are just gross, texture-wise. As a child you’re forced to swallow them down as part of growing up, but when you realize you don’t have to eat them, why?
I feel you are bringing something more than just objective issues to this discussion.
So, it’s OK to praise egg-filled baked goods but if I say that eggs are gross, that’s not objective?
Why is the more progressive position always held to a different standard of scrutiny even in the comments section of this site?
I don’t find your stance progressive in my understanding of progressive. On a small scale, hens and ducks (I love duck eggs, though many say yuck) fit into a cycle, and a lot of people put together their own feed (excluding corn, which is an empty food), and use the manure for compost in the garden. It’s not that hard as chickens eat people food (maybe not mealworms).
This is just hyperbole and has no basis in reality. People across the globe eat rabbits, pigeons, and fish, all of which don’t hit that 3x number.
I’m all for having a sustainable diet, but now it’s gotten a little ludicrous.
If you’re hunting (which only a small % of the world’s people can do before the wildlife runs out), that may be true.
If you’re raising rabbits in your backyard you have to feed them something. And most people are feeding them commercial feed rather than (or in addition to) table scraps.
If you think giving up meat, eggs, and dairy is more ridiculous than raising farm animals in your backyard, then you’re as far away from the average First World person as I am, probably more so.
You need to think about the average apartment dweller with parenting responsibilities and a job. Farming is not a good fit for them. Veganism is the most realistic option for now, until we get into some kind of meat substitute technology.
Here I am, all of 60+ years old, and I still eat eggs. Why in the world why? Perhaps because I find their tastexture to be yummy not yucky.
One can spend more money and get lo-cruelty or even no-cruelty eggs from small artisanal local and/or regional producers.
> They’re also the one of the most expensive (on a per-calorie basis; one egg white has just 17 calories)
Err, how’s this true once you account for the yolk, where all the fat (and thus calorie density) is?
Because almost everyone who defends eggs as “healthy” says just to eat the egg white. Also a lot of people just don’t like the yolk.
As usual, the industry wants to have it both ways. Talk about all the protein in eggs (almost half o which is in the yolk) but then brush off concerns about cholesterol and fat by saying just eat the white.
No, not correct. You are way behind on dietary information.
The idea that eating fats causes cholesterol levels to be higher has been debunked. Your body makes cholesterol from carbs. People who go on Atkins diets (low-no carbs, high fats) see their cholesterol levels drop significantly, for instance.
That is consistent with the fact that egg yolks don’t increase cholesterol levels:
And that’s before you get to the fact that the better-informed cardiologists recognize that cholesterol is a poor indicator of likelihood to get heart disease. Triglyceride and homocystene (sp?) levels are much better predictors.
And the total cholesterol level correlated with the lowest all-factor death rate in women is 270.
Egg yolks are good for you. The big reason to be worried is a more general one that applies to any animal meat: it is higher up the food chain and any bad stuff will be more concentrated than if you ate what the critter ate.
Yves, what did you think about that documentary ”What the Health?” (Netflix) Was it exaggerated, the studies that he was citing in that film? Curious about your opinion on it
I have barely watched any TV or film in years due to the demands of the blog. I don’t even have time to read movie reviews, so I don’t even know what the current movies are.
In the ironies of animal welfare department.
NZ generally has quite good animal welfare law, and the new 2015 updated act has many improvements. They’re currently working through the final wordings of the first set of regulations that come into effect next year.
One practice that will be explicitly forbidden is mulesing, which is where you cut away strips of flesh from around a sheep’s backside to prevent flystrike. (Flystrike is nasty- the maggots literally eat the living flesh of the sheep. I’ve had to treat flystrike afflicted animals. Yucky. A horrible way to die.) The mulesing itself is a very painful procedure, done without pain relief.
Mulesing was common in the Merino industry (where your very fine wool comes from), but the advent of new effective chemical treatments over the last 10-15 years has seen the practice fade away, thus the sheep industry had no real problems/complaints about the new regulation.
The organic farmers, however, can’t use those chemical products. So they are the ones that keep mulesing.
I’m a fan of organic principles, and on our own farm we try to use the minimum of chemicals. But strictly organic farms can actually be worse from an animal health and welfare perspective than “conventional” ones. It’s never an easy black-and-white scenario.
I was on the Abel Tasman walk, and in one of the huts I met a fellow with about 5,000 sheep on his farm in the North Island, and he told me an interesting thing, in that 30 years ago 75% of the value of sheep was in the wool, and 25% in the meat, and now it’s the opposite.
Ugh, I never would have heard of “mulesing.” Add to the list of answers for “why don’t vegans wear wool?” Thanks for the insight.
It is possible to raise sheep (and other fiber animals) in a manner that is quite humane. Good fiber animals can live long lives, as they are not being harvested for meat.
One of the conundrums of veganism is it would bring about the end of many, many animals that cannot live without human intervention/interaction. Once they cease existing I suppose they won’t care, but the road to their ending would not be so nice.
I personally believe that we can work with animals and share the bounty in a non-exploitative way. Others may disagree.
I do often point out that we don’t treat humans as well as we treat animals (in some countries). Prisons being one example. Letting people die in lingering agony bing another. You’d (possibly) go the jail for doing that to a “mere animal”. A fact I point out with mischeivious glee at various animal welfare meetings I attend. :)
>>You’d (possibly) go the jail for doing that to a “mere animal”.
This statement betrays an unfortunately common level of misinformation, as do the preceding statements.
Factory farming *by design* involves levels of extreme wholesale cruelty unknown in the worst dictatorships, let alone US prisons. Just two examples: policies that animals be cut open (beaks cut off, stomachs ripped open, castrations) without anesthetic, and animals routinely left standing in their own excrement with no way of moving out.
And it couldn’t happen except that the individuals who bear ultimate guilt, the people paying for all this to happen, the egg/dairy/meat buyers, chooses to live in a fact-free fantasy and to mock anyone who points out these facts.
Get the facts: https://www.aspca.org/animal-cruelty/farm-animal-welfare
The crazy part of this is, the anything-goes non-regulation regulations will, ah-hem, end up killing the goose (or chickens) that laid the golden eggs. When it comes to food, there is virtually no limit to the premium I will pay for good animal welfare standards or organic produce.
But when what qualifies for organic (or free range) labelling ends up degraded in terms of the standard that they have to meet, I will reluctantly give up on the whole system and revert to cheap and cheerful (or cheap and miserable for the animals concerned) regular foodstuffs.
How to kill a market segment in three easy stages.
“The sad standard for what qualifies to be called an organic egg didn’t miraculously hatch last week. Too little was done, too late, before Trump became president, and in part is the reason we’re where we’re at today.”
Another sad is that the National Organics Standards Board (NOSB) within the USDA has a majority of Big AG people on it (the ones that write the rules) willing and now able to make the changes industry wants. When the board was created it was small farmers that dominated the makeup of the board and there weren’t any, or very very few, large organic egg producers.
It is nearly impossible to read the egg label and determine if the chickens are raised humanely. A free range chicken can now exist with 2 square feet of concrete as it’s outdoor pasture under the new rules.
If you want to know if your eggs are coming from truly humane farms, here is a source for finding out:
Or simply “Know Thy Farmer”.
In Texas, one must expand into at least a smaller near facsimile to an Egg Factory in order for compliance with the eggs to make sense…and that’s before we even mention “organic”.
I was organic long before organic was cool….since I was maybe 4.
we grew fancy lettuce and other greens(and edible flowers for the Wow factor) for the higher end restaurants in Houston,circa 75-89.
This was before certification, the arrival of which my mom and i were intimately involved in.
Later, out here, I was certified organic lettuce(and whatever else i could grow for them) for far flung cafes and B&B’s in the Hill Country.
Big Ag was already soaking everything up into themselves(in both regulatory as well as “industry standard” ways) by the time they federalised “Organic”.
That fiasco was a total coup of “organic” Ag.
The label and the word are meaningless, now.
….unless you Know yer Farmer, that is….which is really the only way to know anything of utility about what you eat…aside from growing it yourself.
Our chickens and geese and guinneas(next few years, turkeys and pheasants and quail if i can manage it) are happier than most humans I know.
Kitchen scraps galore…the gardens in winter…orchards in summer…the various yards the rest of the time(I ran the mower twice last year…just for detail work. geese did the rest without being asked).
All that shows itself in the quality of the eggs and meat(I can legally sell killed and cleaned(“dressed”) birds on farm only).
Yolks are orange and stand up, and the whites are the opposite of the watery disappointment one finds in storebought).
I couldn’t get certified under the current regime if I wanted to, but I challenge you to find a better egg.
second sentence above is “Regs” not “eggs”.
What surprises me in this article is the continued “Why didn’t Obama administer these regulations sooner to sidestep Repub withdrawal?”
It’s because, we all know, Democrats are no better than Republicans.
Note all of the D’s and R’s are in the upper authoritarian, far right quadrant of the far right authoritarian box. Join the super majority, get out of the D vs R box. If we so much as keep talking about them, they win.
In response to perpetualWar: Yes, many of us know this, but I continue to ask the rhetorical question to bring the problem to the attention of those who don’t.
Not true. The reason for the proposed rule (emphasis added) was,
Here are the current organic living condition (7 CFR 205.239) requirements,
Here are the proposed changes (from the rule),
The overall requirements haven’t change. The way one complies with the law would change.
What the rule proposed was to add more detail to the requirements for organic labeling. For example,
Here’s part of the USDA justification for rescinding this rule.
So who wins under the proposed rule. Consumers? Producers? or consultants and compliance experts paid to make sure you’ve sufficiently encouraged your poultry to go outdoors as required by law?
read again:” 2 square feet of concrete= “free range””
the rules sound very nice on the surface…indeed, at the very beginning of the federal takeover of “organic”, I had some slim hope that they wouldn’t screw it all up for corporate benefit.
Such dewy eyed optimism was unwarranted, however.
as far as getting birds to go out of doors…lol…that’s literally the easiest damned thing in the world. Just give them an Outside to go to.
I was involved in the finagling over the Texas Organic Certification.
We had a decent program…especially given that it was Texas.
Jim Hightower had a lot to do with getting this done.
It was driven and led by people like myself, who had an almost religious passion for the Ideals of the organic movement.
I knew many of those folks.
Most of them were against the way the feds did it, too.
If one is worried about the humane treatment of food animals, perhaps one should consider not slaughtering and eating them.
If you know the name of your meat it changes your opinion.
Friends of ours had their (then under 12) daughters slaughter some geese for dinner. They wanted them to know that meat was once a critter, so they could make the informed choice vegetarian or not.
My freezer has lots of named meat in it. And I’m okay with it, because I know they lived well, and died cleanly, instantly, and without pain or fear.
If I still lived in the US ethical vegtarianism might be a necessity, unless as stated above you know the farm where the meat (or eggs or whatever) came from.
Yup, then when the Democrats get back into power, they can reinstate all the Obama rules. Welcome to rule by Executive decree.
Why would anyone want to invest in a business under this type of regulatory uncertainty?
I remember when the Organic movement/ “industry” decided to subject itself to the Dept of Agriculture, and I thought at the time that it was stupid. It was mostly for the benefit of the trading companies. In a sense, this decision marked the line between “movement” and “industry.”
They subjected themselves to their enemies. Great plan.
This means I’m going to have to be more careful when i buy eggs. And pay more.
Thanks for this post. Many great points.
I have to go with the hippie on this one. Half the organic farmers i know are in it for the price premium and nothing else. They’ll cut any corner in a heartbeat. The only way to ensure production meets your values with respect to animal welfare, pesticide use, whatever is to know your farmer.
Wait, isn’t this the same industry that was found a few years back to have gotten all unsold eggs, brought them back to their factories, and to have mixed them in with fresh eggs to go out for sale again? And it turned out that an egg might make this loop two or three times before some poor sucker ended up breaking one only to find that it had gone rotten?
If you are worried about animals feeling pain and fear, especially avoid Kosher and Halal meat.
The poor creatures are hung upside down and their throats are cut. They bellow in agony and thrash about for many minutes until the blood finally empties out of their brain and they feel no more.
Why? Traditions! Because that’s the way they used to do it in the desert 2,000 years ago.
Also note Whole Foods 365 eggs rank dead last in quality and kindness on the score site.
The docs told me I was allergic to eggs; then I spent a few months sailing in and out of Hong-Kong, where the eggs come across from
China in rowboats, fresh every morning!