Lawmakers are calling on the Trump administration to finalize long-stalled regulations that would prevent dairies from moving cows between organic and conventional herds.
Greg Ibach, USDA’s undersecretary for marketing and regulatory programs, told a House Agriculture subcommittee on Wednesday that USDA planned to propose a new rule by the end of the year, but panel Democrats told him he was moving too slowly.
Because of a lack of clarity in existing regulations, some organic certification agencies allow organic farms to source nonorganic animals and transition them for one year, rather than raise replacement cattle organically, according to the Organic Trade Association. Other organic farms put their cows on conventional feed for a time and then bring them back into the organic operation.
The Obama administration issued a proposed rule to tighten the regulations in 2015 but never finalized it, and the Trump administration removed the issue from its regulatory agenda in 2017.
Some members of the subcommittee fear inconsistent regulation has created instability in the organic market. Subcommittee Chairwoman and Virgin Islands Delegate Stacey Plaskett said “the strength of the organic seal is in its reputation.”
Democratic Rep. Chellie Pingree, who is also an organic farmer in Maine, told Ibach it was "completely unacceptable that you’re going to suggest that we’re going to have a proposed rule this year. We had a proposed rule in 2015 … There should be a final rule this year. There should not be a proposed rule, and I do not understand why you’re suggesting that there would be.”
A Republican panel member, Illinois Rep. Rodney Davis, said “These recommendations demonstrate broad agreement across a diverse coalition that doesn’t always agree with each other, and the USDA has not completed rule-making on a single consensus recommendation … including ensuring consistency in transitioning dairy livestock.”
Ibach acknowledged inconsistent regulation can be a disadvantage to farmers, depending on how strictly they comply with the organic standards.
The concerns stem from an audit by the USDA’s inspector general in 2013 finding different organic operations were interpreting the origin of livestock requirements differently.
According to the 2013 report, some farmers were using only cows that had been under organic management for at least the last third of gestation. Others were using cows that had been organically managed for the previous 12 months.
A House-passed spending bill to fund USDA in fiscal 2020 includes a provision requiring the department to finalize the organic livestock rule. Several subcommittee members criticized the USDA for not taking actions to change this process earlier and continuing to move slowly.
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