What the Flock? USDA Seeks to Kill Organic Animal Welfare Rule

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Source: Presence Marketing Newsletter, January 2018
Author: Steven Hoffman

December 21, 2017

After repeatedly delaying implementation of an Obama-era rule that would have required organic egg producers to provide actual outdoor access for their hens, USDA announced in mid-December it plans to withdraw the new organic animal welfare rule altogether.

Originally approved in January 2017 by President Obama in his final days in office, the organic animal welfare standards, known as the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule (OLPP), would have prohibited enclosed “porches” in large-scale organic poultry houses in favor of real outdoor access for the birds. The new rule would have established minimum indoor space for the birds, as well.

USDA acted under pressure from large-scale pork and other livestock producers, who are threatened by any federal regulations regarding animal welfare, as well as a small handful of “industrial scale” organic egg producers. According to the USDA, at least 50 percent of the eggs currently sold as organic come from industrial-scale producers like Mississippi-based Cal-Maine, which houses up to 200,000 hens in a single, multistory aviary with porches, reported AgWeek in November 2016.

The fact that half of all certified organic eggs sold come from industrial-sized poultry houses with no real outdoor access for the hens is a situation that angers hundreds of other organic egg producers that do provide outdoor access for their birds. George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley, requires its egg producers to provide outdoor space for its hens, saying it’s what consumers want and that it is a fundamental part of organic agriculture. “It needs to be a whole system that features the bird’s basic needs, and there’s no doubt that a hen wants to be outside scratching in the ground,” he told National Public Radio in support of the rule.

One organic activist group, the Cornucopia Institute, has even put together an "Organic Egg Scorecard" that rates different organic suppliers based on how closely they're aligned with Cornucopia's vision of humane, pasture-based organic egg production.

USDA: “Not Our Job”

In an announcement published in the Federal Register on December 19, 2017, USDA claimed the rule in question “would exceed USDA’s statutory authority,” which it says is limited to health care practices. “Withdrawal of the OLPP also is independently justified based upon USDA’s revised assessments of its benefits and burdens and USDA’s view of sound regulatory policy,” a department spokesperson said in a statement.

Dismayed by USDA’s decision, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) said in a statement, “This groundless step by USDA is being taken against a backdrop of nearly universal support among the organic businesses, and consumers for the fully vetted rules that USDA has now rejected. It is against this overwhelming public input that USDA ignores growing consumer demands for food transparency. Consumers trust that the Organic seal stands for a meaningful difference in production practices. It makes no sense that the Trump Administration would pursue actions that could damage a marketplace that is giving American farmers a profitable alternative, creating jobs, and improving the economies of our rural areas. Most striking is the administration’s continued confusion that organic standards are mandatory rather than voluntary. Farmers, ranchers and businesses choose to be in the organic marketplace, and Congress intended that industry and consumers work together to develop organic standards. This action undermines that goal.”

OTA originally filed a lawsuit against USDA in September 2017 to force implementation of the animal welfare rule. After learning of USDA’s decision to withdraw the rule, it took again to the courts to uphold organic standards. “In anticipation of the USDA’s continued attempts to kill this regulation, the Organic Trade Association last Friday filed an amended complaint in Federal Court. We will continue our fight to uphold organic standards, that this Administration continues to willfully ignore by repeatedly delaying this fully vetted and final voluntary organic standard, and now proposing to withdraw it. We will see the department in court and are confident that we will prevail on this important issue for the organic sector, OTA said."

Could OTA’s Lawsuit Backfire?

Max Goldberg, publisher of Organic Insider, cautions, however, that OTA’s lawsuit could backfire. If the lawsuit fails, “USDA might feel that is has strong legal ground to rescind previously enacted organic regulations, which has the potential to completely dismantle the entire organic industry,” Goldberg warned. “This all comes down to how an administration wants to interpret OFPA (the Organic Food Production Act). Does it want to interpret OFPA literally and not create any new regulations? Or does it want to interpret OFPA broadly and use it to create regulations that move the organic industry forward? With the Trump administration, it is definitely the former, not the latter,” he wrote.

The organic industry’s success reflects consumers’ increasing demand for transparency in how their food is produced and their support of humane treatment of farm animals, said a coalition of animal welfare groups in an August 2017 report. "A national survey conducted in 2016 found that the vast majority of consumers (77 percent) are concerned about the welfare of animals raised for food. In research conducted by the nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, two-thirds of the company’s customers stated that they are more likely to shop at a retailer that improves the treatment of livestock," the report stated, adding that support for humane animal treatment was even stronger among consumers who buy organic foods.

“Consumers expect the USDA Organic seal to represent high standards for animal welfare. If consumers come to believe that organic regulations do not align with their expectations or their values, the long-term success of the organic program will be threatened. For the benefit of animals, farmers, and consumers, the USDA should act immediately to implement the OLPP rule. The future of the organic marketplace depends on it,” the report concluded.

Public Comments Encouraged

USDA is seeking public comments regarding its announcement to withdrawal the OLLP rule. Deadline for comment is January 18, 2018. To comment and for more information, visit https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic-livestock-and-poultry-practices.