What Do New Organic Rules for Livestock Mean, and How Do They Compare With Other Welfare Labels?

The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Pigs at a family-run organic farm.
Credit: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media for The Guardian

Explainer Future of Food Policy

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If you consider yourself a conscious consumer, grocery shopping can get very complicated very quickly, with countless different labels implying that the food inside was produced humanely. It’s important to know what these labels mean, and that can be difficult with a term like “organic,” which is often used loosely in casual conversation. But what does meat or dairy being organic really mean for animals, farmers and consumers? We break the latest rules down in this explainer.

To start, the answer is more complicated than you might think. Just six percent of all food sold in the U.S. is organic, but any meat or produce that’s marketed as such has to be approved by the United States Department of Agriculture. Although the Trump administration had suspended any updates to the organic standards, the Biden Administration reversed that decision, and earlier this year, the USDA announced its updated rules for organically-produced livestock.

The change was the culmination of a years-long push by some organic farmers to improve how animals are treated on organic farms, and USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack celebrated the changes as a win for animals, producers and consumers.

“This organic poultry and livestock standard establishes clear and strong standards that will increase the consistency of animal welfare practices in organic production and in how these practices are enforced,” Vilsack said in a statement. “Competitive markets help deliver greater value to all producers, regardless of size.”

Before looking at what “organic” means under these changes, however, it’s important to know what it doesn’t mean.

Does ‘Organic’ Mean Pesticide-Free?

No. Organic doesn’t mean pesticide-free, and this is a common misconception. Although the standards for organically-produced livestock do place some limits on the use of medications, antibiotics, parasiticides, herbicides and other synthetic chemicals in livestock farming, they don’t prohibit the use of all pesticides — just most of the synthetic ones, though even then, there are exceptions.

What Do the Current Organic Rules for Livestock Require?

The purpose of the USDA’s new Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards is to ensure “clear, consistent and enforceable” animal welfare standards, according to the Organic Trade Association. The rules cover all types of livestock: non-aviary species like lamb and cattle have one set of requirements, while birds of all kinds have another. There are also some additional rules that apply to specific species, such as pigs.

It’s long — over 100 pages in total. Some of the rules are fairly simple, like the bans on certain practices, including gestation crates for pregnant pigs; others, like those addressing how much space livestock must have in their living quarters, are much more lengthy and complex.

One thing to keep in mind is that these rules only apply to farms and companies that want their products to be certified organic. It’s perfectly legal for producers to ignore all of these requirements, so long as they don’t market or refer to their products as “organic.” They might instead opt for one of the food labels with less or no regulation at all, like “natural.”

Lastly, although these rules take effect in 2025, there’s one big exception: Any farm that’s certified as organic before 2025 will have until 2029 to abide by the new standards. This provision effectively gives existing producers, including the largest ones, more time to adapt to the new rules than any new farms.

With that said, let’s take a look at what these standards are.

New Organic Rules for Livestock’s Outdoor Access

The new rules require organically-produced livestock to have access to outdoor space, a privilege many livestock are not afforded. Under the new rules, non-avian livestock like cows and lamb must have year-round access to “the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight.” If that outdoor area has soil, it must be maintained “as appropriate for the season, climate, geography, species of livestock.” The previous rule required outdoor access, but didn’t specify any maintenance requirements for outdoor areas.

Birds, meanwhile, need to have “year-round access to the outdoors, soil, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, direct sunlight, clean water for drinking, materials for dust bathing, and adequate space to escape aggressive behaviors.”

The shelters must be constructed such that birds have “ready access” to the outdoors throughout the day. For every 360 birds, there must be “one (1) linear foot of exit area space;” this, according to the USDA’s calculations, would ensure that no bird has to wait more than an hour to come inside or go outside.

Egg-laying chickens are required to have access to at least one square foot of outdoor space for every 2.25 pounds of bird at the facility; this requirement is calculated per pound, rather than per bird, to account for variations in size between different birds of the same species. Broiler chickens, on the other hand, are to be given a “flat rate” of at least two square feet per bird.

New Organic Requirements for Livestock’s Indoor Space & Housing

The new organic standards also require farmers to give animals enough space to stretch their bodies, move around, and engage in their natural behaviors.

The indoor shelters for non-avian livestock state that the animals have to be given enough space “to lie down, stand up, and fully stretch their limbs and allow livestock to express their normal patterns of behavior over a 24-hour period.” This is much more specific than the previous version, which only required enough space for “natural maintenance, comfort behaviors and exercise,” and made no reference to how often the animals must have access to this space.

The new rules say that animals may be temporarily confined to spaces that don’t meet these requirements — for instance, during milking — but only if they also have “complete freedom of movement during significant parts of the day for grazing, loafing, and exhibiting natural social behavior.”

For birds, the indoor shelters must be “sufficiently spacious to allow all birds to move freely, stretch both wings simultaneously, stand normally, and engage in natural behaviors,” including “dust bathing, scratching, and perching.” In addition, although artificial lighting is allowed, birds must be given at least eight hours of continuous darkness every day.

The rules require that egg-laying chickens be given at least six inches of perch space per bird; chickens who are raised for meat, and non-chicken birds that also lay eggs, are exempt from this requirement.

Organic Rules for Livestock’s Health Care

Under the new rules, all surgeries to treat disease in livestock must be carried out “in a manner that employs best management practices in order to minimize pain, stress, and suffering” of the animal. This is a significant addition, as the previous rules did not require farmers to do anything to minimize the pain of animals during surgery.

The USDA has a list of approved anesthetics that may be used on animals during surgery; however, if none of those anesthetics are available, producers are required to take alternative steps to ease the animal’s pain — even if doing so results in the animals losing their “organic” status.

Banned Practices for Organic Livestock

The following procedures and devices are completely banned under the new rules for organic products:

  • Tail docking (cows). This refers to the removal of most or all of a cow’s tail.
  • Gestation crates and farrowing cages (pigs). These are harshly-confining cages that mother pigs are kept in during pregnancy and after giving birth.
  • Induced molting (chickens). Also known as forced molting, this is the practice of depriving chickens of food and/or daylight for up to two weeks in order to temporarily increase their egg output.
  • Wattling (cows). This painful procedure involves slicing off chunks of the skin under a cow’s neck for identification purposes.
  • Toe clipping (chickens). This refers to cutting off a chicken’s toes to prevent them from scratching themselves.
  • Mulesing (sheep). Another painful procedure, this is when portions of a sheep’s hindquarters are cut off in order to reduce the risk of infection.

The new regulations also contain partial bans on other common factory farm practices. They are:

  • Debeaking (chickens). This is the practice of cutting off chickens’ beaks to prevent them from pecking one another. The new regulations prohibit debeaking in many contexts, but still permit it so long as a) it takes place within the first 10 days of a chick’s life, and b) it doesn’t involve removing more than one-third of chick’s upper beak.
  • Tail docking (sheep). While tail docking of cattle is flatly prohibited, sheep’s tails may still be docked under the new regulations, but only up to the distal end of the caudal fold.
  • Teeth clipping (pigs). This refers to removing the top-third of a pig’s needle teeth to prevent them from injuring each other. The new rules state that teeth clipping may not be performed on a routine basis, but is permitted when alternative attempts to reduce infighting have failed.

Do Organizations Other Than the USDA Offer Certification for Animal Products?

Yes. In addition to the USDA, several nonprofit organizations offer their own certifications for ostensibly “humane” food products. Here are a few of them; for a more thorough comparison of how their welfare standards compare to each other, the Animal Welfare Institute has you covered.

Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) is a certification granted by the nonprofit A Greener World. Its standards are quite rigorous: all animals must have continuous outdoor pasture access, tail-docking and beak-trimming are prohibited, no animals may be kept in cages and calves must be raised by their mothers, among other requirements.

Over the last century, the chicken industry has selectively bred chickens to grow so abnormally large that many of them can’t support their own weight. In an attempt to combat this, AWA standards place a limit on how quickly chickens can grow (no more than 40 grams a day, on average).

Certified Humane

The Certified Humane label is granted by the nonprofit organization Humane Farm Animal Care, which has developed its own specific welfare standards for each of the most commonly farmed animals. Certified Humane standards require that cows have access to the outdoors (but not necessarily pasture), pigs have adequate bedding and access to rooting materials, egg-laying hens have at least one square foot of space per bird, and perhaps most significantly, no animals of any kind are kept in cages.

Note that Certified Humane is not the same as American Humane Certified, a different program that many animal rights activists believe is insufficiently committed to animal welfare at best — and actively deceptive at worst.


The Global Animal Partnership, another nonprofit, differs from the other organizations on this list in that it offers a ranked certification program, with products receiving different “grades” depending on which level of standards they adhere to.

Most of GAP’s standards focus on what sort of access animals have to pastures, and the organization has many different metrics for assessing this. It also addresses other areas of animal welfare; under GAP standards, cages are prohibited for both pigs and chickens, and beef cows may not be fed any growth hormones of any kind.

How Does ‘Organic’ Compare With Other Labels?

Animal products are often marketed as being “cage-free,” “free-range” or “pasture-raised.” All of these terms have different meanings, and some can have multiple meanings depending on the context.


At least three different organizations offer “cage-free” certification: The USDA, Certified Humane and United Egg Producers (UEP), a trade group. Naturally, all three of them define the term differently; in general, all three prohibit cages, but some are more stringent than others. For instance, the USDA has no minimum space requirements for cage-free chickens, while Certified Humane does.

Additionally, all eggs produced in California are cage-free, thanks to the passage of Proposition 12.

In any event, a lack of cages doesn’t necessarily mean these chickens are living happy, healthy lives. There’s no requirement that cage-free chickens be given access to the outdoors, for instance, and although the UEP discourages beak-trimming on cage-free farms, it doesn’t prohibit it.

Despite these shortcomings, studies have shown that cage-free systems significantly reduce the amount of pain that chickens experience on factory farms.


Under current USDA rules, poultry products can use the label “free-range” if the flock in question was “provided shelter in a building, room, or area with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle,” with the stipulation that outdoor areas can’t be fenced in or covered with netting.

Certified Humane’s Free-Range standards are more specific, with a requirement that the chickens get at least six hours outdoor access a day and two square feet of outdoor space per bird.


Unlike “cage-free” and “free-range,” “pasture-raised” labeling is not regulated by the government at all. If you see a product that’s labeled “pasture-raised” without the mention of any third-party certification, it’s essentially meaningless.

If a product is Certified Humane Pasture-Raised, however, it means quite a lot — specifically, that every chicken had at least 108 square feet of outdoor space for at least six hours a day.

Meanwhile, all AWA-certified products are pasture-raised, regardless of whether those words appear on the label, as this is a core requirement of their certification.

The Bottom Line

The new USDA Organic regulations do hold organic meat companies to a higher level of animal welfare than non-organic products, and that includes large players like Tyson Foods and Perdue with organic product lines. The new standards aren’t quite as high as those of some third-party certifiers, like AWA, and even for the best certifications, how animals are raised in reality depends on the quality of oversight and independent inspectors. Ultimately, “humanewashing” has become a common enough marketing practice that it’s easy for even the savviest shoppers to be fooled by unverified or deceptive labeling. The fact that a product is marketed as “humane” doesn’t necessarily make it so, and likewise, the fact that a product is marketed as organic also doesn’t necessarily mean it’s humane.

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