Farm industry divided over animal welfare rules

Rick Barrett
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

A Trump administration decision aimed at scrapping higher animal welfare standards for organic poultry and meats, has created a rift in the farm community.

At issue, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has withdrawn its support for a rule that would have, among other things, required more outdoor space for hens on organic egg farms.

Matthew Teunissen says chickens at his organic Blue Sky Family Farms in Cedar Grove benefit from pesticide-free feed and humane conditions giving them more room as well as time outside. He contends it produces better eggs.

The rule would have closed a loophole in the current regulations that allows large poultry farms to use screened-in porches as outdoor access. It also would have prohibited some practices such as “tail docking” where a cow’s tail is partially removed.  

The rule was adopted two days before former President Barack Obama left office, in January 2017, but Trump’s Agriculture Department called for further review, saying the rule exceeded its statutory authority.

Last week, a public comment period ended with more than 47,000 comments received by the USDA, and all but a few favoring the changes that would require “USDA Certified Organic” meat and poultry producers to abide by stricter animal welfare standards.

Still, large farm groups said the proposed changes went too far in dictating how farmers must treat their livestock, and the Agriculture Department seemed to agree.

“With USDA’s wise decision to withdraw this rule, organic livestock and poultry producers can rest assured that they will not be forced out of business by another costly and burdensome regulation,” Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) said in a statement.

Matthew Teunissen stands in the egg packaging operation at  Blue Sky Family Farms in Cedar Grove, an organic egg farm. It is one of many organic poultry farms against a Trump administration plan to remove "animal welfare" standards from the national organic standards. Matthew and Julie Teunissen operate the egg farm.

“By withdrawing this rule, the Trump administration is again demonstrating its commitment to deregulate rural America,” Roberts said.

Yet some of the rule’s strongest supporters are in the $43 billion organic food industry, where Wisconsin is second only to California in production.

Consumers expect higher animal welfare standards from organic agriculture, said John Brunnquell, founder and president of Egg Innovations that has a farm in Cedar Grove, north of Port Washington. 

“This is about consumer confidence,” Brunnquell said, adding that most people who buy organic eggs believe the chickens have access to the outdoors, fresh air, sunshine and a natural diet of things like bugs and worms.

“The withdraw of this rule is one of the most foolish things the USDA could do. It’s the classic reason why consumers don’t trust big agriculture,” he said.

Egg Innovations, a network of 65 farms in five states, says its chickens get a minimum of 22 square feet per bird access to the outdoors, much higher than the current minimum USDA standard that allows for small screened-in porches.

“We have more than a million birds doing this,” Brunnquell said.

About half of the organic eggs produced in the United States are from chickens that get outdoors and can express their natural behaviors, such as scratching in the dirt for bugs and taking dust baths, according to Brunnquell.

Julie Teunissen helps package eggs at Blue Sky Family Farms in Cedar Grove, an organic egg farm she operates with her husband, Matthew.

“So we think it’s a fear-mongering statement that costs would explode, and that family farms would go out of business,” from a higher animal welfare standard, he said.

Much of the debate has been centered on organic poultry and eggs.

“People buy organic because they think these birds are living a better life, and that they’re not in a cage, but some of these aviary systems are nothing more than glorified cages,” said Mark Kastel, director of The Cornucopia Institute, which closely follows the organic industry.

"The USDA has never enforced language in its rules that says all organic livestock must have access to the outdoors," Kastel said.

The U.S. Poultry & Egg Association, based in Tucker, Ga., did not return Milwaukee Journal Sentinel calls asking about its position on the organic rule.

Other farm groups, however, said they worried that it would set a precedent for the livestock industry, reversing years of USDA policymaking that mostly separated animal welfare from the definition of certified organic products.

“We work with a host of specialists, from animal scientists to nutritionists, to manage our farms in the best manner possible to ensure wholesome, healthy food. This rule, on the other hand, has been about pushing an agenda rather than advancing food safety or animal welfare,” American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall said in a statement.

Some of the rule’s provisions would conflict with environmental and food-safety regulations, said Karen Gefvert, director of government relations for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau Federation.

“And we don’t think that animal welfare standards should be tied to the organic label,” Gefvert said.

Matthew Teunissen packs eggs at Blue Sky Family Farms in Cedar Grove.

Years ago, according to the National Pork Producers Council, Congress laid the groundwork for organic livestock products by setting parameters around how animals could be fed and what types of medications would be used.

“Animal welfare is not fundamental to organic production simply because consumers are misinformed about, or have non-germane expectations, for an organic label,” the pork producers said in comments to the USDA about the proposed rule.

Organic programs are for marketing, “and therefore are not the place to prescribe animal welfare practices,” the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association said in its comments.

Organic Valley, a farmer-owned brand based in La Farge, says it supports the animal-welfare rule as part of the USDA’s organic standards.

A lot is at stake for the reputation of the organic food industry, according to George Siemon, chief executive officer of CROPP Cooperative, the farmers’ co-op that owns Organic Valley.

“Consumers expect that livestock raised and labeled organic has been grown in a certain way, with no antibiotics, no hormones, and eating food that is pesticide-free and GMO-free. They also expect the livestock to have access to the outdoors, including soil, grass and sunlight. In a word, they expect strong animal-welfare standards,” he said.

 “The organic label has been incredibly positive for us. … We are a unique group that wants to go to Washington, D.C. and ask for additional standards. Not many farmers ask for more rules and regulations.”

The Obama administration could have implemented the rule in early 2016 but instead pushed it off to Trump, according to Siemon.

“I think that shows you the power of what’s called the ‘barnyard coalition’ in Washington, which is all of these livestock processing companies saying they don’t want animal welfare standards to enter the USDA,” he said.

South of La Crosse, Mike McCarty has an organic egg farm with a total of about 7,500 chickens housed in three buildings. In the organic poultry business, he says, that's a small operation.

His chickens can get outdoors, where they have about 12 square feet of space per bird, and McCarty says they're healthier for it.

He favors animal welfare standards as part of the USDA Organic seal.

"Keeping birds cooped up in a shed all the time isn't good for them," McCarty said, adding that he believes hens produce better eggs when they have access to the outdoors. 

The growth in organic foods has kept small poultry farms in business, according to McCarty, who says that without the premium price consumers pay for the eggs, he and his wife couldn't make a living from their operation.

Still, a handful of large farms control about half of the U.S. organic egg industry, according to those in the business, and the trend has been toward industry consolidation.

"We got back a piece of our pie, with organic, but now our slice is shrinking again,” McCarty said.