WASHINGTON, July 13, 2016 – The comment period for USDA’s proposed organic animal welfare standards expires at midnight July 13, having drawn nearly 6,000 comments since the draft rule was announced in April.

The standards touch on all phases of organic animal production, but perhaps no ag sector would be more impacted by the rule than poultry and egg production.

The most noteworthy change is language surrounding outdoor access for turkeys and layers, broilers, and pullets. The proposal requires minimum allotted space (no more than 2 ¼ pounds of hen per spare foot of outdoor space for layers, for example) and “suitable enrichment to entice birds to go outside.” The required enrichment has led to some similarly enriched remarks from lawmakers.

“Folks, this is just plain ridiculous,” Senate Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in April. “What is an enrichment activity anyway? Maybe teach the chickens how to work crossword puzzles or maybe knitting?”

In June, Georgia’s 10 House Republicans sent a letter to USDA criticizing the rule. Georgia, one of the top poultry states in the nation, could be hit hard by proposed standards, Rep. Doug Collins, said in an interview with Agri-Pulse.

“It looks like USDA is trying to kill the organic egg market and the organic poultry market,” he said. “And if that’s their intention, they’re succeeding by this rule.”

John Glisson, U.S. Poultry and Egg Association vice president of research programs, tells USDA in his organization’s comments that there is a good deal of concern surrounding potential health consequences with the outdoor requirements.

“Housing poultry outdoors in enclosures that do not eliminate contact with wild birds and mammals irresponsibly ignores the most fundamental principles of disease prevention,” Glisson said, adding that USDA is “probably” underestimating the increased mortality that could come from more time outdoors. The standards specifically state that “porches” attached to buildings do not qualify as outdoor space.

The National Chicken Council is similarly critical of the proposal. In the organization’s comments, Ashley Peterson, NCC’s senior vice president for scientific and regulatory affairs, had issues with, among other things, the requirements surrounding outdoor access, stocking density, and the enrichment requirements.

“Fundamentally, NCC is concerned that the proposed rule imposes unreasonable costs and requirements of doubtful benefit on organic farmers,” she said, specifically mentioning disease concerns and efforts to comply with international poultry welfare standards. “NCC supports the organic program and the choices it offers consumers, but these issues must be addressed for this proposal to further benefit organic producers.”

One of the few ag organizations lining up to support the proposed regulations is the Organic Trade Association. In its comments, OTA rejected the argument that USDA and the National Organic program lacked the authority to make rules governing organic livestock and poultry production.

OTA also said the rule would not harm existing international equivalence arrangements, as some critics have charged..

“Contrary to suggestions, we expect that finalizing the rule, as a whole, will have a positive impact throughout negotiations, signings and renewals of U.S. organic equivalency arrangements with international trading partners.”

The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association called for USDA to withdraw the proposal, arguing that “voluntary agency marketing programs are not the place to codify animal production practices.”

In the organization’s comments, NCBA President Tracy Brunner said that cattle producers over the past 30 years have developed the “gold standard” in cattle care – the Beef Quality Assurance Program (BQA).

“Efforts by the USDA to set a secondary animal welfare standard for organic will inevitably mislead consumers into thinking that such arbitrary standards are handled in a manner different than conventionally produced beef,” Brunner said. “Instead of attempting to address continuously changing animal care and handling practices in this rule, we recommend the USDA suggest that organic producers become BQA certified,” Brunner said.