The U.S. Agriculture Department plans to withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule establishing animal welfare standards for organic agriculture, according to a document published Monday in the Federal Register. The deadline for comments is January 18, 2018.
USDA stated that establishing the rule would exceed its statutory authority, which it is interpreting as being relegated to health care practices. "Withdrawal of the OLPP also is independently justified based upon USDA’s revised assessments of its benefits and burdens and USDA’s view of sound regulatory policy," the agency said in the documentation.
The Organic Trade Association said it was dismayed by USDA's action, and the group immediately amended its lawsuit filed in September to force implementation of the rule. "It makes no sense that the Trump Administration would pursue actions that could damage a marketplace that is giving American farmers a profitable alternative, creating jobs, and improving the economies of our rural areas," OTA said in a statement. "Most striking is the administration’s continued confusion that organic standards are mandatory rather than voluntary."
The rule, put in place just before President Obama left office, would require animals to be able to exhibit natural behavior — the ability to sit, walk, stretch and stand without touching other animals or the sides of the pen, as well as having free and clear access to the outside — in order to receive organic certification.
First proposed in April 2016, the rule was delayed several times after its initial publication in January. It was originally scheduled to go into effect in March.
In February, USDA delayed the rule's implementation until May 19. That date was pushed back until November 14 as the department sought further comment and review of the rule. USDA announced on Nov. 9 that the final rule would be further delayed until May 14, 2018. USDA reported that it received more than 47,000 comments recently from the public, with the majority of them wanting the rule to be implemented.
Conventional livestock groups opposed the rule from the start and expressed support for withdrawal. The National Pork Producers Council said the standards it would have established weren't based on science and were outside the scope of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. The pork producers group also said that animal production practices have nothing to do with the basic concept of organic, and that the organic certification process would have become more complex if the rule were in place.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican, called the rule "unwanted and unneeded" and said he was glad USDA had listened to his concerns. "With USDA’s wise decision to withdraw this rule, organic livestock and poultry producers can rest assured that they will not be forced out of business by another costly and burdensome regulation," he said in a news release.
Had the rule gone into effect, it was projected to be especially harmful on organic egg and poultry farmers. A USDA report issued in January projected it would cost those farmers between $8.2 million and $31 million per year to comply for the first five years of the rule. That contrasts with $670 million in organic egg sales and $494 million in organic poultry sales in 2015. However, USDA also estimated that egg producers would see benefits from the rule between $4.1 million to $49.5 million annually.
Easier to quantify is the increasing demand for certified organic food products. Despite heftier price tags, sales of organic food items continue to rise. Nielsen data released by the Organic Trade Association earlier this year found organic foods are in 82.3% of the country's 117 million households. It's no wonder that sales surged 8.4% to a record $43 billion last year
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 the Organic Trade Association, sales of organic meat and poultry were expected to surpass the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2017.
While many organic food producers supported the rule, some did not. Egg producers Cal-Maine and Herbruck's Poultry Ranch objected to changes mandated by the proposed rule. Pete & Gerry's — the country's top-selling brand of organic eggs — and the Organic Egg Farmers of America wanted to see it enacted.
According to a recent report from a coalition of animal welfare groups — including the Animal Welfare Institute, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Farm Forward — the organic industry's success reflects the growing desire of consumers for transparency in how their food is produced and their support for the humane treatment of farm animals.
"A national survey conducted in 2016 found that the vast majority of consumers (77%) are concerned about the welfare of animals raised for food. In research conducted by the nation’s largest retailer, Walmart, two-thirds of the company’s customers stated that they are more likely to shop at a retailer that improves the treatment of livestock," the report stated, adding that support for humane animal treatment was even stronger among consumers who buy organic foods.
Consumer pressure for establishing organic animal welfare standards could be the wild card in this situation, but given all the controversy and political wrangling over the rule to date, it's more likely that the issue will finally end up being decided in court.