If You Think the Organic Label Means Less Animal Suffering, You'd Be Wrong

Americans love animals, and millions of us share our homes with cats and dogs. In contrast, billions of farm animals endure intolerable cruelty on factory farms, hidden behind locked doors, treated like inanimate production units. They are confined and crowded in filthy, windowless warehouses and denied basic humane consideration. The conditions are so harsh and disease so rampant that hundreds of millions die before reaching the slaughterhouse every year.

Consumers are increasingly concerned about farm animal suffering, and they are seeking alternatives to industrialized meat, dairy and eggs. Marketing labels that suggest farm animals are treated humanely are becoming common, but these labels sound better than they are. Eggs and meat labeled “free-range” can come from animals who are crowded by the thousands and who never go outside. Beef sold as “natural” often comes from cattle implanted with hormones and confined in feedlots.

And “organic” doesn’t require animals to be treated humanely either, although the USDA is now accepting public comments on proposed guidelines that seek to improve animal welfare on organic farms.

Unfortunately, animals raised and sold under the organic label experience cruelty similar to those raised on factory farms. They are overcrowded and subjected to painful mutilations like debeaking in the case of chickens. They are commonly denied access to the outdoors—despite existing organic standards requiring it. In essence, counter to what consumers may believe, organic animal agriculture is very much like factory farming, and animals are seen primarily as commodities, not as living feeling creatures.

USDA oversight of organic and similar labeling claims is especially important because there is a commercial interest in overselling animal welfare and other virtues, and misleading consumers who depend on labeling claims to make purchasing decisions. When people believe their food is produced in accordance with more ethical, sustainable, and healthful standards, they are willing to pay a significantly higher price. And food industry profiteers are happy to take advantage of well-meaning consumers to increase business revenue.

The risk of deceptive labels is amplified because there is a strong and growing demand for foods produced according to higher standards, but the supply has not caught up. Regulatory oversight and infrastructure has lagged. Humane and organic production standards are weak, vague, and applied inconsistently. These programs are also designed to make it easy for farmers to qualify, because food retailers need more producers. The bottom line is that upstanding consumers interested in doing the right thing are often made to pay premium prices for sub-premium products.

U.S. citizens have assumed that meat, cows’ milk and eggs labeled as organic comes from animals treated better than animals in conventional systems, despite the lack of clear and consistent standards. I am grateful that the USDA is addressing this, and taking steps to better align organic labels with consumers’ expectations. Their proposed standards would prohibit debeaking chickens, for example, and also give animals more space and better access to the outdoors. These are positive steps, but there is still a long way to go, and amazingly, agribusiness is lobbying hard to prevent even these basic improvements. 

At Farm Sanctuary, unlike in production agriculture, animals are our friends, not our food. We appreciate and enjoy each other’s company. Turkeys follow people around like puppies, and sit on their laps. Sheep paw at visitors like dogs, asking to be petted. Pigs flop over on their side for belly rubs, and communicate their appreciation with happy grunts. At Farm Sanctuary, vegan is normal.

All animals, whether they are companion animals or farm animals, deserve to be treated with respect and compassion, and their physical and emotional needs should be met. Like humans, they are social creatures who have deep and intimate relationships that should be recognized and honored. Mothers should be allowed to raise their young.

Our relationships with other animals are evolving, and as we learn and understand more about them, we see how similar they are to us, and we learn more about ourselves. Kindness to animals is good for them, and it’s also good for us. Mahatma Gandhi said, “You can judge the moral progress of a nation by its treatment of animals.” If that is true, serious changes are called for, including on organic farms.

You can submit your comments to the USDA's proposed guidelines here.

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