Trump administration’s USDA again delays implementation of organic animal welfare standards for millions of farm animals
After eight months of repeated delays, the USDA has kicked the can down the road even further on the Organic Livestock and Poultry practices rule (“organics rule”) and delayed its implementation for at least another six months. In doing so, the agency has again poked a thumb in the eye of thousands of family farmers and millions of consumers who want the upgraded standards and enhanced authenticity of the organics label. This series of deferrals is nothing but a sop to big agricultural interests threatened by the notion that “organic” products will be perceived as superior to conventionally produced animal products.
The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (the Act) was enacted to establish consistent, national standards for products marketed under the “organic” label, and to “assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent standard.” Despite the agency’s confusion over its statutory authority, the Act has long been interpreted to include animal welfare considerations, and the statutory text called on the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) to recommend additional requirements “for the care of livestock.” The 2001 rules implementing the Act included several animal welfare requirements, as did the 2010 rules.
The current rule, now delayed until May 14, 2018, attracted tens of thousands of positive comments from citizens and stakeholders, including key players in the organics industry. The final rule, as adopted by USDA in January 2017, creates new standards for raising organic livestock, such as limiting tail docking and beak clipping; would require animals to have year-around access to the outdoors; and would stipulate that the indoor space is sufficiently large to allow the animals 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 slaughterhouses.
An organic label that guarantees animal welfare inspires consumers to spend more on these products, which returns profits to organic producers and keeps them in business.
The USDA finalized the organics rule in January 2017 after over a decade of work with farmers, consumers, and other stakeholders. Far from being a “midnight rule,” this regulation was carefully crafted, incorporating feedback given to agency officials stretching back at least as far as the George W. Bush administration. Despite the time and effort already spent, the USDA now attempts to excuse itself from responsibility by vaguely referring to “an incorrect calculation” used in its regulatory impact analysis that apparently necessitates endless reexamination. The fact is that this rule has already undergone sufficient analysis, and the agency itself has already recognized that the regulatory costs associated with changing to cage-free poultry systems (which is what is holding this rule up) “would be categorized as a transfer of value from egg producers to egg consumers.”
Both consumers and organic food producers favor the rule. More and more, consumers are demanding high standards of animal welfare in return for the premiums they pay for organic products. A Consumer Reports survey found that 60% of Americans (and 86% of frequent organic consumers) believe it is highly important that organic food comes from farms with high animal welfare standards. More than half of Americans (and 83% of frequent organic purchasers) say it is highly important that hens in organic farms have outdoor access. USDA’s own research has demonstrated consumers’ willingness to spend substantially more money to give chickens outdoor access. The organics rule addressed these concerns by laying out consistent standards to ensure that organic consumers receive the value they expect and help to subsidize.
Big agriculture doesn’t like the comparison between its production practices (which have no legally required federal animal welfare standards) and the finalized organic standards (which are the first federal animal welfare standards in the law). Conventional producers are fond of saying that people vote with their pocketbooks, and that animal advocates may talk a good game about giving animals more space and outdoor access, but in the marketplace, consumers default to lower price points rather than higher ethical standards. But if their efforts to subvert this rule tell us anything, they scream out loud that they are afraid of the mass movement of consumers toward organic. Organic is the fastest growing product line in the grocery business, and consumers are clearing the shelves of products designated with the label. But they are also asking that the label mean something, and that the weak standards put in place in 2000 (a full decade after the 1990 passage of the Organic Foods Production Act) are fortified so that there is authenticity behind the organic brand.
In addition to the tens of thousands of American citizens who commented on this rule (multiple times now), hundreds of organic livestock producers have called on USDA to delay implementation of the rule not one more day. These producers are part of an industry worth over $40 billion in sales, and are asking for a standard that will buttress their place in the market by giving them a meaningful standard. Without the rule, these organic producers (many of whom are small, mid-size, and family farmers) will continue to operate at a competitive disadvantage because some industrial producers are claiming the mantle of organic while taking animal welfare short-cuts in their production strategies.
Holding up the organics rule at the behest of agribusiness interests threatens the integrity of the organics label, and it’s wrong. By making organic standards consistent, and aligning them with consumer expectations, USDA will protect the integrity, and thus the continued value, of the organic seal. Americans have made their wishes clear on this question, and it’s time for our government to stop ignoring them and get in step. This series of delays hurts rural America, undermines the confidence that tens of millions of consumers have in the program, and reflects knee-jerk obedience to unreasonable concerns of big agribusiness operators.