WASHINGTON, Aug. 3, 2016 - USDA is in the process of finalizing a rule to amend animal welfare standards in organic agriculture, and they received a fresh to-do list last week from a pair of Capitol Hill letters.

The rule is currently under review by USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service after an extended public comment period expired in mid-July. The rule as written would impose new welfare regulations on organic producers, perhaps none more notable than the fresh language calling for more outdoor access for organic poultry.

Although the comment period has closed, AMS received letters from members of both the Senate and the House last week sounding off on the proposed rule.

One letter was sent by a bipartisan group of 13 senators led by Ag Committee chair Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, the panel’s ranking Democrat. The group had a dozen questions focusing on impact to producers, consumers, and the health and safety of the animals, specifically in the poultry sector. The senators say AMS’ proposal “raises significant concerns” about the impact on producers and “could have a detrimental impact to both animal health and safety.”

The concerns raised by the senators are not new, but this is the first time that they were accompanied with a set of pointed questions about the benefits of the new rules. “How many new producers will join the industry?” they asked, seeking more information on an AMS claim that more producers will join the organic egg market as a result of the new standards. Other questions: How will AMS educate consumers about the new standards? Did AMS consider alternative methods to improve animal welfare that might not increase bird mortality?

Another letter from Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., dealt with a largely ignored repercussion of the new standards: their possible impact on both the conventional and organic beef industry. Most of the uproar around the proposed rule has centered around the poultry industry, with little attention paid to possible effects on organic beef and pork producers.

“If implemented, this rule would establish welfare standards that would mislead consumers by supporting standards that are neither based in science nor necessary for animal well-being,” Collins wrote. “Unfortunately, the proposed rule relies on marketing techniques instead of sound science at the expense of both the cattle industry and consumers.”

Collins’ letter strikes a similar tone to comments submitted by the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. In its comments, NCBA touched on a number of issues, but honed in on the perception problem that could be created if the proposed rule were to bring production standards into a marketing program.

“NCBA is concerned that USDA condones the notion that organic production should be viewed as a better production method,” NCBA President Tracy Brunner said in his organization’s comments. “While USDA may not have gone into this rulemaking with that intent, we all know that perception is reality, and this rule gives the perception that conventional food production does not have the same commitment to animal welfare or quality.”

Like other sectors, the cattle industry would be hit by requirements such as seasonally appropriate ventilation during transport and prohibitions against slaughtering sick or injured animals. There’s also language barring tail docking of cattle and mandating that any physical alterations – think dehorning, in the case of cattle – must be done “at a reasonably young age.”

AMS is currently in the process of reviewing the almost 6,700 comments that were submitted on the proposed rule. A spokesman for the agency told Agri-Pulse in an email last week that the agency has no timeline for the release of a final rule.


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