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USDA Withdraws Animal Welfare Rule from National Organic Program

By Lorrie Baumann

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Monday that it is withdrawing the animal welfare regulation it had delayed three times. The rule would have established animal welfare standards that would have applied to the producers of organic livestock and eggs. The regulation was proposed in the waning days of the Obama administration after the completion of a rulemaking process that included extensive public comments, which were overwhelmingly in favor of adopting the new standards. In the opposite camp was the National Pork Producers Council, which applauded the USDA action. The USDA delayed the rule following the inauguration of the Trump administration, and then delayed it further. Before the final withdrawal, the rule had been scheduled to take effect in May and would have applied only to products bearing the USDA-certified organic seal.

The Obama-era regulation – the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule – would have incorporated into the National Organic Program welfare standards that were not based on science and that were outside the scope of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, according to the National Pork Producers Council, which maintains that the Organic Food Production Act limited consideration of livestock as organic to feeding and medication practices.

“We’d like to thank Sec. Perdue and the Trump administration for listening to our concerns with the rule and recognizing the serious challenges it would have presented our producers,” said NPPC President Ken Maschhoff, a pork producer from Carlyle, Illinois.

The rule would have required that poultry must be housed in spaces that are big enough for the birds to move freely, stretch their wings, stand normally and engage in natural behaviors. Livestock, including poultry, would have been required to have access to outdoor space year-round. The rule would have banned the current practice, followed by some poultry producers, of confining birds to barns with a screened porch as their only access to the outdoors.

NPPC maintains that animal production practices have nothing to do with the basic concept of “organic.” The Organic Trade Association begs to differ. “USDA wrongly alleges that the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) does not authorize the animal welfare provisions of the OLPP final rule, and, in doing so, cites definitions of organic outside the law,” the organization said in a statement.

“It is notable that USDA cites the Merriam-Webster dictionary to justify a definition of ‘organic,'” said Organic Trade Association CEO and Executive Director Laura Batcha. “Merriam-Webster also defines outdoor as ‘not enclosed; having no roof,’ and porches as ‘a covered area…having a separate roof.’ Organic standards already require that organic producers provide their animals access to the outdoors. So, by the assessment from Merriam-Webster, a source which USDA endorses in its official notice, porches are clearly not allowed in organic.”

The Organic Trade Association has filed suit in an attempt to force the USDA to implement the rule and will now be amending its complaint to challenge this new USDA action. “Since the filing of our lawsuit last September, a host of organic stakeholders representing thousands of organic farming families, organic certifiers and organic policymakers – along with leading animal welfare and retail groups speaking out for millions of consumers — have joined our challenge,” Batcha said. “The organic sector depends on USDA to set organic standards fairly and according to the law. When USDA fails to do this, it is time for the organic community to insist that it live up to its responsibility.”

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