Organic Livestock Rule Has Uncertain Future After Second Delay

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By Casey Wooten

The Agriculture Department is again pushing back implementation of an Obama-era rule tightening living standards for organic poultry and livestock, asking the public whether the USDA should move forward with the regulations at all.

In a pair of announcements, the USDA Agriculture Marketing Service said May 9 that it will delay implementing the final rule for organic animal welfare from May 19 to Nov. 14, citing a federal freeze on new regulations until the administration conducts further review. The move gives more time for the public to comment on the sweeping new regulations on raising, housing and processing certified organic chicken, pigs and other animals.

Finalized in the waning days of the Obama administration, the rule has come under fire from some trade groups and congressional Republicans, who say the tighter standards would force farmers to make expensive modifications to existing animal enclosures and drive up costs for consumers. The USDA’s latest move is likely to open the door for groups to push the department to abandon the Obama-era final rule altogether.

In filings to the Federal Register, the USDA said the delay will allow the public to weigh in on four possible actions on the welfare rule: let the rule become effective, suspend the rule indefinitely for the USDA to conduct more review, delay the effective date further, or withdraw the rule entirely. The USDA issued two documents, one pushing back the effective date for the rule and another calling for public comment on the future of the regulation.

Public comments are due 30 days after the USDA’s announcement is published in the Federal Register on May 10.

Second Delay

The move is the second time the Trump administration has delayed the organic animal welfare rule. It was originally set to come into effect March 20, but the USDA in February pushed that date back.

The rule would create new standards for raising organic livestock, such as limiting tail docking and beak clipping. Further, livestock would be required to have year-around access to the outdoors, and indoor space must be large enough for them to stand up and stretch their limbs.

Non-ambulatory animals, such as those with broken limbs or those too sick to move, must be medically treated, even if doing so would remove their “organic” status. Animals must also be able to walk on their own before they are transported to buyers, auction houses or processing facilities.

Support for Delay

During the original comment period, some agriculture groups such as the National Pork Producers Council said the rule had nothing to do with the concept of organic, and that it would only add to the complexity of the organic certification process and increase costs for farmers.

Dave Warner, director of communications for the NPPC, told Bloomberg BNA in an email that his group plans to submit additional comments asking the USDA to scrap the rule altogether.

“NPPC is pleased that the Trump administration has further delayed the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule,” Warner said. “We will submit comments, urging USDA to scrap this ill-advised, costly and largely unworkable regulation, which is not science based and would present real challenges to protecting animal and public health.”

Egg and poultry producers would be some of the most affected by the new welfare standards. In 2015, sales of organic eggs topped $670 million, while sales of organic poultry were $494 million, according to a January USDA report on the effects of the welfare rule.

In that report, the USDA estimated that annual compliance costs would be between $8 million and $31 million over five years for organic egg and poultry farmers.

“United Egg Producers opposes the organic rule,” Chad Gregory, president and CEO of the trade group, said in an emailed statement. “We will evaluate this new decision in collaboration with our egg farmer-members, and then determine whether we will provide additional comment to USDA.”

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a long-time critic of the rule, applauded the delay.“As I’ve heard time and time again from organic livestock and poultry producers—the folks who are most affected by its implementation—this rule is bad news for farmers, ranchers, and consumers,” Roberts said in a statement.Not all of industry is opposed to the rule. Though the regulations would affect major chicken processors and retailers who have organic product lines, at least one company, Perdue Farms Inc., came out in support of the regulations when they were released in draft form in mid-2016.

Backlash

The May 9 announcement of the delay comes only two weeks after more than 300 organic farmers and the Organic Trade Association sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue calling on the USDA to implement the rule.

“We are frustrated that a final rule having gone through such extensive public and industry feedback and official scrutiny is now being stopped,” Maggie McNeil, spokeswoman for the OTA, told Bloomberg BNA in an emailed statement. “It is just plain wrong. Being certified organic is a choice, not a mandate.”

McNeil said that her organization will be submitting additional comments supporting a quick implementation of the rule.

Animal rights groups also opposed the delay and said they would fight to preserve the rule.

“Family farmers, organic producers, and consumers the regulation directly impacts have already weighed in with enormous support for this rule and we expect many more to weigh in,” Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, said in an emailed statement. “Our members are particularly fired up about this issue, and they’ll make their views known to USDA and lawmakers.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Casey Wooten in Washington at cwooten@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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