WASHINGTON, Jan. 18, 2017 – USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service on Wednesday detailed the final organic animal welfare rule it will release this week, and the finished product looks awfully similar to its previous proposal.

The standards were originally proposed in April 2016 to widespread industry outrage. Most of the criticism targeted requirements that organic birds have outdoor access, particularly the decision to disallow covered porches from counting as outdoor space necessary in organic production. That provision stands.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning, AMS Administrator Elanor Starmer said the outdoor access requirements – part of the final rule that will be published in the Federal Register tomorrow – will better align with consumer expectations for organic poultry and eggs.

“Consumers expect organic birds come into contact with soil and vegetation and can exhibit natural behavior,” Starmer said, noting that “the majority of organic egg producers” already provide pasture access for birds because of this consumer expectation.

But industry groups reject that argument, saying that such rules should not be set by consumer preference.

“The standards seem to be based on public perception – or USDA’s understanding of that perception – of what good animal welfare is and don’t reflect a consensus by experts in animal welfare and handling,” National Pork Producers Council President John Weber said in a statement.

“The inclusion of animal welfare requirements into the organic food production law is no different than requiring that all farmers wear bib overalls or paint their barns red in deference to public sentiment,” he added.

Weber was also critical of former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose last day at USDA was Friday. He called the regulations from USDA a “parting gift” from Vilsack that was “not welcomed.”

“This unnecessary, unscientific midnight regulation won’t win him any friends in the agriculture community,” Weber said of Vilsack.

The rule is drawing support from the organic community. Starmer said the regulations will help to protect the investment of producers looking to get into the organic market because of the increased public confidence in the production practice. That thought was echoed by Laura Batcha, CEO and executive director of the Organic Trade Association, who said many producers see these regulations as “not only welcome but essential.”

“Organic is an opt-in regulated marketing program that ensures products bearing the USDA organic seal meet strict, consistently applied standards and provide the consumer a meaningful choice,” Batcha said in a statement.

Under the final rule, animals in organic production must have daily access to outdoor areas that include soil and/or vegetation. One of the few changes in the final rule added some clarification to the makeup of that outdoor access, a move AMS says brings the requirements in line with best practices from USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The final rule also increases indoor space for birds and calls for exit doors to be distributed “to ensure animals have ready access to outdoors.” Size requirements for those exit doors, however, were removed in the final rule.

AMS did address biosecurity concerns related to outdoor access raised by industry reps. Producer groups were concerned that requiring outdoor access could have negative effects on bird health, pointing to the 2015 outbreak of highly pathogenic avian influenza (HPAI) – thought to be spread by wild birds. 

In the event that biosecurity concerns abound, AMS did leave room for producers to “determine conditions under which temporary confinement may be required.”

The rule will have a gradual phase-in process. Producers have five years to comply with outdoor access requirements for poultry, three years to comply with indoor access, and one year to comply with all other provisions.

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The rule was originally unpopular on Capitol Hill, and statements released Wednesday don’t appear to show any change there. Senate Agriculture Committee leaders took aim at the rule, expressing their disappointment both in its content and its timing. 

“This rule has serious potential to force organic farmers and ranchers out of business and is widely opposed by those very folks who are affected the most by this rule,” Senate Ag Committee Chair Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a statement. 

“Prices for consumers could rise, and animal health could be put at risk, which may decrease food safety,” he added. “I will work with USDA under the new administration to see what can be done to ease this overregulation on our hard-working farmers and ranchers.”

Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow, the panel’s ranking member, also said she was “disappointed” in the rule. She said it “did not address many of my concerns about animal health, consumer organic prices and access, or the impact on organic producers.”

USDA said the cost of implementation is difficult to gauge, but could run as high as $31 million. That cost could also be as low as $8.2 million, largely depending on how many poultry producers decide to pursue the changes and stay in organic production rather than opting for the less-restrictive cage free.

The animal welfare rules come one day after AMS issued a proposed rule on an organic checkoff, making for a busy week for both AMS and organic stakeholders. Starmer reiterated that both measures have been in the works for some time, but admitted that releasing them on back-to-back days in the final week of the administration was “not the ideal scenario.”

“We certainly would have hoped that these would have come out earlier, but we are very glad that they were able to get done,” Starmer said. “We’re going to have to leave it to the next folks to actually move them forward.”

(Story was updated at 1:30 p.m. EST to include additional comment)


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