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Keeping Chickens and Consumers Happy

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When I die, I want to come back as an organic chicken. Okay, not really, since I do not believe in reincarnation, but you have to admit the life of an organic chicken, as proposed by the USDA, is a darn site better than the living conditions of many people today.   According to the rules laid out in the proposed USDA organic livestock rule, the lifestyle of an organic chicken will be comfortable, enjoyable, intellectually stimulating, and stress free.  This lifestyle comes at a price, however, but a price that will be paid by the producer and the consumer.

Working hand-in-hand with organic producers and animal rights activists, the micromanaging bureaucrats at the USDA crafted a new set of standards for certified organic livestock operations. The opinion of USDA and of many in the organic industry is that the current rules are too general and that more specific and restrictive guidelines are needed.  This is because, when you put organic chicken in the meat case or organic eggs in the cooler alongside conventionally produced products that are half the price of the organic items, you can’t tell them apart by looks, taste, or almost any other means.  The USDA admits in its proposed rule that the standards are a marketing ploy, “Organic products cannot be distinguished from non-organic products based on appearance; consumers rely on process verification methods, such as certification to a uniform standard, to ensure that organic claims are true.”

According to the proposed rule, organic poultry will live a short but idyllic life, “Organic livestock and poultry must be raised in a way that accommodates their health and natural behavior and reduces stress. Specifically, organic livestock and poultry producers must provide access to the outdoors, shade, clean and dry bedding, shelter, space for exercise, fresh air, clean drinking water, and direct sunlight.” The rule outlines extremely specific requirements to achieve these standards. It even call for farmers to provide incentives to get the birds to take advantage of the outdoor life.

What is driving all this? The assumption is that this is what consumers want and are willing to pay for. “AMS understands that consumers expect, and are willing to pay more for, animal welfare requirements that are more stringent than conventional products. This includes outdoor access for organic poultry.” The radical animal rights movement has been successful in influencing USDA that most consumers make their food purchases based on animal welfare issues. This is not borne out by consumer research.

So, why should we care what the organic livestock industry wants if we are not raising organic livestock? Because it sets a dangerous precedent. If activist forces can influence regulations that tell farmers how to farm, we are in trouble. We have already seen this in efforts to regulate dust, chemicals, manure, water in ditches, and youth labor on farms.  Grain producers may soon face challenges on what kind of seeds they plant. Livestock and dairy producers may be restricted from culling unwanted animals, which the egg industry is already facing.  All of this has little or nothing to do with food or environmental safety — only on what makes certain consumers feel good. Keeping consumers’ consciences clear and livestock lives stress-free seems to be the most important thing today in food production rather than insuring a safe, reliable, and affordable supply of food.

By Gary Truitt