- In a lawsuit filed on Wednesday, the Organic Trade Association lawsuit is accusing USDA of violating the Organic Foods Production Act, unlawfully delaying the effective date of the final organic livestock standards developed by industry, and abusing its discretion by ignoring the public record established in support of the standards, according to a press release.
- “We are standing up on behalf of the entire organic sector to protect organic integrity, advance animal welfare, and demand the government keep up with the industry and the consumer in setting organic standards,” Laura Batcha, the group's executive director and CEO, said in a statement.
- OTA also contends that the Trump administration’s regulatory freeze order issued to federal agencies on Jan. 20, 2017, should not apply to the organic standards because they are voluntary and required only of farms and businesses that choose to be certified as organic.
OTA is suing USDA over the multiple delays of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Production rule, also known as the Organic Animal Welfare Rule. Issued in the dying days of the Obama administration, the rule would establish federal regulations concerning the U.S. organic sector and address four broad areas of organic livestock and poultry practices — living conditions, animal healthcare, transport, and slaughter.
Agricultural groups led by the National Pork Producers Council immediately decried the rule as executive overreach and said it would raise costs for producers and consumers. The NPPC vowed to work with the new Trump administration to overturn it.
That argument seems to have held sway with the new leadership at USDA. The final rule's effective date was initially Jan. 19, 2017, but was initially delayed until May 19, 2017, according to USDA. Then on Feb. 9, 2017, the rule was further delayed until Nov. 14, 2017, "to allow time for further consideration by USDA."
The most recent delay prompted OTA to take legal action. The group said other organizations harmed by USDA's inaction include organic livestock farmers, organic certification agencies, and organic retailers and consumers. Groups supporting OTA in the lawsuit are the Organic Valley/CROPP Cooperative, Jesse Laflamme of Pete & Gerry’s Eggs, National Co+op Grocers and the Accredited Certifiers Association.
It can be difficult to quantify economic or other damage from government delays, but there's no doubt the plaintiffs will try. In a statement, OTA's executive director said it was the group's "duty to protect the U.S. organic sector and enable it to advance, to uphold the integrity of the organic seal and to honor the consumer trust in that seal ... ."
If finalized, there are costs attached to complying with the rule. The rule would establish minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry, clarify how producers and handlers must treat livestock and chickens to ensure their health and well-being throughout life, including transport and slaughter, and specify which physical alterations are allowed and prohibited in organic livestock and poultry production.
The rule could dent revenues for organic egg and poultry farmers in particular. A USDA report issued in January on the impact of the rule projected it would cost those farmers between $8.2 million and $31 million per year to comply for the first five years under the rule. That contrasts with $670 million in organic egg sales and $494 million in organic poultry sales in 2015. However, the USDA also estimated egg producers would see benefits from the rule between $4.1 million to $49.5 million annually.
One thing that is easier to quantify is the increasing demand for certified organic food products. Despite heftier price tags, sales of organic food items continue to rise. USA Today reported in July that sales of organic food were up 8.4% this past year over 2015 and hit a record $43 billion in sales in 2016.
In particular, meat and poultry products carrying the "USDA Organic" label are big sellers. Organic meat and poultry sales posted new records in 2016, increasing by more than 17% to $991 million for the category’s biggest-ever yearly gain. According to OTA, sales of organic meat and poultry are expected to surpass the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2017.
If the rule is finalized as is, the timelines for producer compliance would be phased in, with five years to establish outdoor access requirements for egg operations, three years for broiler operations to establish indoor space requirements, and one year for all other adjustments.
It's hard to say whether OTA will be successful in getting a court to reverse USDA's decision to delay enacting the rule, but plenty of lawyers should be available to argue either side. The outcome is likely to depend on the venue and the judge as well as how much time and money the parties want to spend on appeals.