The Department of Agriculture is taking final steps to withdraw the organic animal welfare rule, setting an effective date for the regulation’s formal repeal.
USDA announced plans to withdraw the rule in December, saying that the regulation as written “would exceed USDA’s statutory authority.” Tomorrow, USDA is expected to formally publish in the Federal Register documentation that will withdraw the rule – formally dubbed the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule – effective May 13.
USDA pointed out that a number of commenters – which the department says includes organic farmers, state departments of agriculture, and trade associations – agreed that the rule went beyond granted authority.
“These commenters stated that withdrawing the OLPP final rule would prevent increased costs to producers and consumers from costly structural changes and higher prices for organic eggs, respectively,” USDA noted.
There was also concern about the requirements for increased outdoor access for poultry and the elimination of covered porches as qualifying square footage. USDA noted the worries that the increased access “would heighten disease risk and interfere with biosecurity practices.”
In a statement, Greg Ibach, USDA’s marketing and regulatory program undersecretary, said the “robust” regulations already governing organic livestock and poultry production are effective.
“The organic industry’s continued growth domestically and globally shows that consumers trust the current approach that balances consumer expectations and the needs of organic producers and handlers,” Ibach said.
Senate Agriculture Committee chair Pat Roberts agrees. He said as written, the rule would have “jeopardized the livelihood of organic livestock and poultry producers.”
“America’s organic livestock and poultry producers can now breathe easy that they can maintain the health of their flocks and herds the best way they see fit, and they will not be driven out of business by another government regulation,” Roberts, R-Kan., said.
The Organic Trade Association, however, will add this to a legal complaint against USDA for acting to delay the rule in the first place. That suit was filed when USDA failed to implement the rule – finalized in the last days of the Obama administration last year – before it was ultimately withdrawn.
OTA’s lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia will be amended to include this latest challenge, the group said in a statement.
“The USDA’s unconscionable action does not deter us,” said Laura Batcha, OTA CEO and executive director. “We will continue our fight in the court … This latest action by USDA will only invigorate and solidify more support for this regulation.”
Last week, OTA requested the court hear oral arguments in the case, which now has seven declaring parties.
But major livestock groups were opposed to the rule, saying it was impractical and portrayed non-organic production in a negative light.
“Not only did USDA not have the legal authority to implement animal-welfare regulations, but the rule would have also vilified conventionally raised livestock without recognizing our commitment to raise all cattle humanely, regardless of the marketing program they're in,” National Cattlemen’s Beef Association President Kevin Kester said in a statement.
But OTA and other organic stakeholders said this regulation should have been implemented, primarily on the grounds that organic production is a voluntary, opt-in program.
“The decision to withdraw the rule is disappointing as it runs counter to the desire of the regulated industry and misses a key opportunity to reinforce the integrity of the organic label,” said Paul Wolfe, senior policy specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.
USDA said the Agricultural Marketing Service received approximately 72,000 comments on the proposed withdrawal. Of those comments, over 63,000 opposed withdrawing the final rule, but USDA said 56,000 of those comments were submitted as form letters. About 50 comments supported withdrawal (with five comments as form letters), and about 7,800 did not state a specific viewpoint on proposed withdrawal.