WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2017 – A cadre of organic supporters is suing the Department of Agriculture over a decision to delay implementation of the organic animal welfare standards rule finalized in the final days of the Obama administration.

In a release, the Organic Trade Association announced action “to defend the organic seal and organic standards” through a lawsuit alleging USDA “unlawfully delayed the effective date of the final livestock standards.”

"The organic industry takes very seriously its contract with the consumer and will not stand aside while the government holds back the meaningful and transparent choice of organic foods that deliver what the consumer wants," Laura Batcha, OTA’s executive director and CEO said in a statement. "The government's failure to move ahead with this fully-vetted regulation calls into question the entire process by which organic regulations are set – a process that Congress created, the industry has worked within, and consumers trust."

The rule was published in the Federal Register January 19, just a day before the inauguration of President Donald Trump. It was originally scheduled to go into effect in March, but it was included in a group of regulations delayed by the Trump administration in a memo temporarily postponing a number of regulations finalized in the final days of the Obama administration for 60 days, which pushed the effective date back to May 19. 

Then, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service announced an additional delay, moving the effective date to November 14. AMS said the additional delay was “to allow time for further consideration by USDA.”

OTA, however, says the rule should have never been delayed in the first place. Yes, the rule was released within the same timeline as others that were subject to postponement, but OTA contends the organic animal welfare standards should have been considered differently “because they are voluntary and are required only of those farms and businesses that opt in to be certified organic.”

Among other things, the rule set standards for outdoor access in organic poultry production, removing covered porches from qualifying outdoor space. Opponents to the rule had fun with language requiring “suitable enrichment to entice birds to go outside,” but also expressed concern about biosecurity issues at play if the rule were to be implemented.

OTA’s board voted unanimously to pursue the litigation. The group says it is supported by organic producers, grocers, certifiers, and other stakeholders in its efforts. A release says OTA’s stated goals for the lawsuit are to reverse the decision to delay the rule and “eliminate options proposed by USDA to further delay, rewrite, or permanently shelve the rule.” This would make the rule, as written, effective immediately.

But there’s a lot of groups that don’t want that to happen.

In a statement released Wednesday, Chuck Lippstreau, a spokesman for the Michigan Agri-Business Association called the rule a “misguided proposal” that “would expose hens directly to diseases and to predators that can hurt or kill them, directly contradicting USDA’s obligation to protect animal welfare through sound science.”

When the rule was released in January, John Weber, then the president of the National Pork Producers Council said the rule seemed “to be based on public perception – or USDA’s understanding of that perception – of what good animal welfare is” and didn’t “reflect a consensus by experts in animal welfare and handling.”

NPPC and other groups have routinely expressed their concern that this rule would cast a bad light on all production methods other than organic, which they say is not an accurate representation of animal welfare standards in non-organic animal agriculture.

For her part, Batcha maintains that outside concern is not a sufficient reason to pull the rug from underneath a voluntary set of standards.

“It's a voluntary system, and the organic sector welcomes clear and fair standards under which to operate," she said. "Organic regulations apply only to certified organic producers, and those organic producers are overwhelmingly in favor of this new regulation. Most of the criticism of the new organic animal welfare rule has come from outside the sector, and by special interest groups not impacted by the regulation, but which would like to override the will of our members.”


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