On Monday, the US Department of Agriculture dealt a major blow to animal welfare advocates and a major boon to the country’s meat producers.
In a press release, the USDA announced it would withdraw from the Obama-era ruling that would increase regulations for the living conditions for animals being sold as certified organic, known as the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule.
The final rule, passed on January 18, 2017, was a last-ditch effort for President Barack Obama’s outgoing USDA secretary Tom Vilsack to institute regulations that organic advocates and consumer groups had long championed. In order for a poultry or livestock operation to be USDA-certified organic, it would have been required to provide improved minimum amounts of indoor living space, access to the outdoors, and better handling of sick animals, among other provisions to end practices generally viewed as cruel among animal welfare advocates.
The rule was set to go into effect in May of 2018, after it had been delayed three times on the grounds that producers did not reasonably have enough time to comply with the demands. Some speculated that the USDA would continue to delay enforcement indefinitely. But on Monday, the USDA confirmed it would revoke the rules entirely.
“The existing robust organic livestock and poultry regulations are effective,” said Greg Ibach, the USDA undersecretary responsible for the National Organics Program, which oversees the setting of federal organic standards and certifies qualified producers. “The organic industry’s continued growth domestically and globally shows that consumers trust the current approach that balances consumer expectations and the needs of organic producers and handlers.”
But to those outside the USDA, the level of trust for the current approach to organic certification is still in question. Organic livestock and poultry operations often look no different than conventional factory farms to the naked eye. Consumers found that the lack of regulation within these facilities made the “organic” label misleading—they wanted to know the chickens producing their pricier organic eggs were living in healthier, more humane conditions than their conventionally farmed counterparts. While the organic market has grown exponentially in the last decade, advocates have been toiling for 14 years to ensure that regulations were tightened to ensure that “organic” meat and eggs referred to more than just feeding practices.
Although the department said it “carefully considered” public comments, it ultimately decided that the National Organics Program did not have the authority to enforce regulations relating to animal welfare as a qualification for organic certification. It also cited concerns for the undue financial burden on producers to comply, which would discourage farmers from adopting organic practices and applying for certification. After this withdrawal, the only thing required of livestock and poultry producers to achieve certified organic status is to ensure that anything ingested by the animals is organic—not a very high bar to hurdle.
Of the 72,000 responses the proposed withdrawal received during open comment period, over 56,000 comments were submitted by organic farmers, animal welfare advocates, certifying agents, and retailers opposed to pulling out of the ruling. (Only 50 comments wholeheartedly supported withdrawal.)
"By withdrawing the rule, which was supported by most prominent organic trade groups and producers, including family farmers, and by some large-scale non-organic producers, such as Perdue Farms, the agency has chosen to ignore the wishes of thousands of stakeholders committed to higher welfare standards," said Kitty Block, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, in a blog post on the organization's website on Tuesday. "The USDA is also ignoring the wishes of a majority of Americans who want to see the National Organic Program establish criteria in line with their expectations for how animals should be treated before slaughter."
When the Trump administration announced its intentions to withdraw from the OLPP in December, prior to one final round of public commentary, a group of Democratic representatives from districts with agricultural concerns issued a joint statement in opposition to the move.
“This is a clear case of the Trump Administration ignoring public feedback to follow through on its own politicized wishes,” said Representatives Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Rob Kind (D-WI), Peter DeFazio (D-OR), and Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). “This undermining of the public process is absolutely indefensible and should not be allowed to stand.”