Amend Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule

July 13, 2016

Paul Lewis, Director of Standards Division
National Organic Program
U.S. Department of Agriculture
Room 2646-So., Ag. Stop 0268
1400 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, D.C. 20252-0268

Re: Docket No. AMS-NOP-15-0012
National Organic Program: Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices

PCC Natural Markets is a growing chain of 11 consumer-owned markets in Seattle and five adjacent cities in Washington state. On behalf of our 56,000 member-owners, we respectfully submit the following comments on the National Organic Program’s proposed animal welfare standards.

  1. Physical Alterations
  2. Ammonia levels for poultry barns
  3. Outdoor access
  4. Living space indoors and outdoors
  5. No provisions for slaughter
  6. Conclusions

Physical alterations

In general, we are glad to see proposed codification of prohibitions in §205.2 against caponization, de-snooding, toeclipping, dubbing, de-beaking, and cattle wattling. These prohibitions are important to organic consumers who want and expect organic livestock to be raised without hurtful and harmful physical alterations.

We do not support other hurtful, harmful and unnecessary physical mutilations, such as needle teeth clipping and tail docking in pigs, and beak trimming in birds up to 10 days of age.

We ask NOP to change its proposed rule to prohibit these practices. We can support passage of this proposal with revision.

Teeth clipping

Other certifications for animal welfare, notably Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), already prohibit needle teeth clipping in pigs because:

  • Clipping teeth is painful for piglets
  • The procedure can expose the tooth pulp cavity to infection
  • Clipped teeth may fracture and bleed
  • Abscesses may form
  • Gum damage may occur

AWA reports “… studies have shown that teeth‐clipped piglets display teeth champing after the procedure and spend more time sleeping, a possible indication of sickness due to infection of mouth injuries. If the tool used to clip the teeth is dull or broken it may splinter or split the tooth down through the roots, instead of neatly cutting off the sharp points of the teeth. Infection that gets into the roots is
extremely painful and prevents the piglet from eating… The best way to prevent problems associated with broken teeth and mouth infections is to quit teeth clipping …

“One recent study concluded that, as well as short‐term pain, pigs are likely to experience long‐term pain from the tooth abnormalities that occur following clipping, and that this pain is likely to last until the milk teeth are … replaced with permanent teeth – a period of 50–120 days. This means that many pigs reared for meat may experience pain as a result of tooth clipping throughout their entire life.”

AWA says one group of British researchers looked at 550 piglets in 49 litters with their teeth left intact and found any facial wounds (from unclipped teeth) were superficial and that their research (and that of others) “showed a lack of any ill effects on piglet health, weight gain or survival, leading them to question the welfare and economic importance of such facial wounds.”

A Michigan study also found that nursing growth rates were similar between pigs with clipped or intact‐teeth, and that “pre‐weaning mortality actually was lower among pigs with intact teeth … The lack of evidence to suggest these lesions affect piglet mortality or weaning weight suggests that there is little – if any – justification for teeth clipping.”

If the NOSB and NOP truly want organic to be “the Gold Standard” for animal welfare, as claimed, then needle teeth clipping must be prohibited.


NOP also must prohibit tail docking, as recommended by the NOSB. We can support the proposal with this revision.

Animal Welfare Approved already prohibits tail docking, representing a higher standard for animal welfare than organic. The real question is not why tail biting occurs in typical housing for hogs (leading to the practice of tail docking) but whether cutting off the tails raised in confinement reduces it. For hogs at least, the research is not supportive.

A 2003 British study found that “tail docking was associated with a three-fold increase in the risk of tail biting [among pigs].” The European Union barred routine docking of pigs’ tails in a 1991 directive.

Penn State’s Extension website says, “… biting can be a problem in some penning systems if tails are left full length. This is not a common problem in outdoor systems. Depending on [the] particular hog-rearing system, you may be well-advised to dock the tails of baby pigs or you may not need to…”

The revised NOP proposal says physical alterations can be made only to promote animal welfare. Since the science does not support tail docking for animal welfare, we cannot support the NOP proposal.

NOP instead should support the NOSB’s recommendation to prohibit tail docking of pigs.

Beak trimming

We ask NOP to revise its draft to prohibit this practice.

NOP’s proposal does not meet the expectations of the many organic consumers who have called or written with concerns about trimmings gone awry, causing complications for these animals.

Ammonia levels for poultry barns

§ 205.241 (b)(2) is not clear and needs significant clarification.

It says, “Ammonia levels in poultry houses must be less than 25 parts per million indoors. When ammonia levels in poultry houses exceed 10 parts per million, an operation must implement additional practices to reduce the ammonia levels below 10 parts per million.”

Does that mean the maximum allowed is 10 ppm, or 25 ppm? Like much of this proposed rule, it’s not clear how the language would be interpreted or implemented. We expect different certifiers could have very different “readings” – allowing great inconsistency and the lack of a real standard in organics.

Available science shows that allowing ammonia to as much as 25 ppm is too high. Scientific analyses show hens experience physiological impacts at 20 ppm, so levels never should be allowed to reach even 20 ppm (“Measuring and Auditing Broiler Welfare,” Claire Weeks and Andrew Butterworth, 2004).

Excessive ammonia exposure among chickens can “cause air sac lesions and keratoconjunctivitis, may increase susceptibility to certain diseases; affects foraging, preening, and resting behavior; may reduce food intake and cause weight loss; and may irritate mucous membranes.” (Kirstensen and Wathes, 2000)

§205.241 (b)(2) must be revised to say levels must at all times be below 20 ppm for an operation to meet fundamental animal welfare standards and be certified organic. A maximum tolerance less than 20 ppm is fundamental for bird health, and perhaps for consumers who want healthful poultry.

An allowance for abuse up to 25 ppm is the type of concern that drives organic consumers to choose pastured non-organic poultry over organic.

Outdoor Access

We support most of §205.241 (c)(1), particularly the provision “to promote and encourage outside access for all birds on a daily basis,” and that producers “must provide access to the outdoors at an early age to encourage (train) birds to go outdoors. Outdoor areas must have suitable enrichment to entice birds to go outside…”

We also very much support §205.241 (c )(2), that: “exit areas for birds to get outside must be designed so that more than one bird can get through the opening and that all birds within the house can go through the exit areas within one hour.” This provision provides improved clarity for producers and certifiers to implement housing improvements that meet the intent of outdoor access.

However, we cannot support §205.241 (d)(2): “Birds may be temporarily denied access to the outdoors” during “… the first 4 weeks of life for broilers and other meat type birds and the first 16 weeks of life for pullets.” If confined for the first 16 weeks, or even 4 weeks, birds become accustomed to not going outdoors at all, undermining intent. Use of warming lights indoors or out can provide the necessary respite from outdoor ventures even by chicks not fully feathered out.

We are encouraged by §205.241 (b)(5) that “Poultry houses must have sufficient exit areas, appropriately distributed around the building, to ensure all birds have ready access to the outdoors,” but ask for more specificity.

As a remedy, we suggest revising §205.241(c)(1) to say all poultry houses must have exit areas at least every 10 feet or so, sufficiently spaced all around the entire building to ensure all birds have ready access to the outdoors.”

We are especially glad to see what appears to be a prohibition in §205.241 (c)(6) against small outdoor covered porches, which have been used by some of the largest producers without consequence, and certified by some certifiers without consequence – ironically during NOP’s so-called “Age of Enforcement.”

We strenuously object to §205.241(c)(8) that proposes, “At least 50 percent of outdoor access space must be soil.” Allowing cement or gravel for “outdoor access” would not conform to the overarching OFPA principle that livestock must be able to exercise natural behaviors. Birds cannot dust bathe in gravel or on cement. There is nothing to forage on cement or gravel beds. Outdoor areas should be soil and contain compost piles of organic matter for digging and hunting, as natural behaviors.

We can support §205.241(d)(2) or §205.241(c)(8) with these revisions.

Living space indoors and outdoors

Consumers expect organic food to be based on much higher standards for animal welfare than conventional food. But the stocking densities proposed by NOP are hardly any different from the non-organic production model that organic consumers wish to avoid.

Indoor living space:
The following provisions for indoor organic stocking density are as inadequate as conventional, non-organic production models. They do not meet expectations of organic consumers, or the market demand:
§205.241(c)(3) for “no more than 2.25 pounds of [laying] hen per square foot of indoor space”
§205.241(b)(7)(ii) for “no more than 4.5 pounds of [laying] hen per square foot of indoor space” in aviaries
§205.241(b)(8) for “no more than 3 pounds of pullet per square foot of indoor space”
§205.241(c)(5) for “no more than 5.0 pounds of [turkeys, broilers, and other meat type species] per square foot”

Outdoor living space:
The following provisions for outdoor organic living space standards are hardly any different from the requirements in conventional, non-organic production. They do not meet expectations of organic consumers, or the market demand:
205.241 (c ) (3) for “layers, no more than 2.25 pounds of hen per square foot of outdoor space may be allowed at any time”
205.241 (c) (4) “for pullets, no more than 3 pounds of pullet per square foot may be allowed at any time”
205.241 (c ) (5) “for turkeys, broilers and other meat type species, no more than 5 pounds of bird per square foot may be allowed at any time”

NOP rejected NOSB’s recommendation that 2 square feet be allotted to birds indoors, stating the requirement is “too liberal.” Yet, research shows a grown hen needs about 2 square feet to flap and stretch both her wings – a natural behavior made difficult or impossible in conditions providing less.

The organization, Compassion in World Farming, cites research on the link between stocking density and animal welfare in broiler chickens, finding high density leads to a reduced ability to exhibit natural behaviors, restricted movement, and poor environment. These reportedly lead to problems with walking, preening, eating, and drinking.

We also question that bird weight should be used to calculate stocking densities. Realistically, producers and inspectors are not going to weigh birds in a flock to determine compliance, which seems to allow great latitude for inconsistency in practice. We are aware the EU has an outdoor requirement of 43 feet square feet per bird. NOP’s draft proposal is not even close to that.

Based on what we’ve seen first-hand in certified organic chicken operations (layers and broilers), PCC Natural Markets advocates increasing the outdoor space minimum to no less than 5 square feet per bird for laying hens and broilers, and 5 square feet for turkeys inside, to ensure the ability to exercise “natural behaviors” and to meet the expectations of organic consumers.

By not adopting NOSB’s recommendation for a 2-square-foot minimum indoors, NOP undermines the value of the organic seal.

The demand for pastured poultry products – whether organic or not – has been growing rapidly for at least the past five years. Shoppers don’t seem to care whether the feed is organic as much as they value that the hens are raised on vegetation where they can engage in the behaviors natural to foraging birds. What they do expect is adequate space and outdoor environments with green vegetation.

This draft rule does not ensure either.

Already a full third of the eggs sold at PCC Natural Markets are pastured and the shift to pastured products continues — even when price premiums for pastured eggs exceed the price for organic eggs. Organic eggs and organic broilers are being left behind when pastured options are available because NOP is not keeping up with consumer expectations.

Animal welfare labels such as Animal Welfare Approved provide more space per bird as well, requiring pasture. Organic cannot hope to become the “gold standard” for animal welfare when its rules aren’t the highest.

As one shopper put it, “The term ‘organic’ ensures that hens’ feed is not treated with pesticides. It is no guarantee of the hens’ living conditions. Organic is good to look for, but we should investigate the actual conditions behind the words before we are lulled into a false sense of complacency.”
— Jean C., Issaquah, Washington

No provisions for slaughter protocols

Another common concern of organic shoppers of meat, poultry and dairy is the slaughter process. But organic standards are silent on slaughter protocols.

This is a great shortcoming and one we hope NOSB and NOP will add to organic rules.

We know that how an animal is handled before and during transport, and how it’s handled up to stunning and slaughter makes a difference in the comfort and ease of an animal, and the quality of the edible product.


While we support a good number of provisions, as noted, PCC Natural Markets could support passage of the overall proposed rule to amend the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices animal welfare standards with the noted revisions.

The proposal for living space indoors and out is not adequate even to maintain current demand for certified organic chicken meat or eggs. The proposal for “outdoor access” falls short in allowing for half of the outdoor area not to be soil.

The attraction of other label claims, such as “pastured,” is chipping away at organic’s share of the market. Unless NOP ensures pasture, we expect the demand for non-organic pastured products over organic will continue.

We have seen a 20 percent increase in sales of pastured eggs for several years. While it’s difficult to parse, it appears that organic shoppers are “upgrading” to pastured choices – whether for the perceived benefit to animals, or whether for the perceived nutritional benefit. Pastured is our fastest growing egg category, leaving organic behind.

We hope our recommendations will serve to encourage revision for organic claims that meet consumer expectations.


Trudy Bialic
Director, Public Affairs

Related reading

"Naturally raised" meat labels are misleading

Letter to USDA, re: the proposed "naturally raised" label is deficient and misleading.

Suggestions for organic animal welfare

Comments submitted to the National Organic Standards Board Livestock Committee; re: its recommendations to strengthen organic standards for animal welfare.