The U.S. Agriculture Department on Tuesday officially withdrew the organic livestock and poultry practices (OLPP) rule that would have set animal welfare standards for organic agriculture. The department announced in December it planned to pull the measure because it concluded it would exceed its statutory authority.
"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," Greg Ibach, USDA's marketing and regulatory program undersecretary, said in a release.
The Organic Trade Association condemned USDA's action and said the department had "irresponsibly thwarted a fully vetted regulation" overwhelmingly supported by the organic industry and the public. "This most recent egregious attempt by the Department to ignore the will of the organic industry and consumers does not halt our judicial review, but, in fact, furthers our resolve,” Laura Batcha, the group's executive director, said in a statement. OTA has sued USDA over the matter and recently asked for oral arguments in the case to be heard.
The proposed rule was issued just before the Obama administration's departure from office in January 2017. Under its provisions, in order for an animal agriculture operation to receive and maintain organic certification, animals would need 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.
Soon after the Trump administration took office, the rule's implementation was delayed several times. Some in the organic sector said it needed to be implemented in order to guarantee that organic certification means something significant. They said that existing standards in the $43-billion organic food industry aren't consistently upheld and that just because a certified organic operation is required to have outdoor access for its animals doesn't mean that it actually does.
Supporting USDA's rule withdrawal were conventional livestock groups. The National Pork Producers Council said the proposed standards weren't based on science. The pork group, which backed USDA's position that the rule was outside the scope of the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, said animal production practices have nothing to do with the basic concept of organic and that the certification process would have become more complex if the rule were in place.
Organic certification is being sought out in the agricultural sector because of its economic and environmental advantages. Meat and poultry products carrying the "USDA Organic" seal are big sellers. Organic meat and poultry sales posted new records in 2016, increasing by more than 17% to $991 million. According to the OTA, sales of organic meat and poultry were expected to surpass the $1-billion mark for the first time in 2017.
Regardless of USDA's withdrawal, supporters of the rule aren't giving up, either on the legal front or on bolstering organic certification. The Real Organic Project is proposing that a new add-on label pilot program be adopted that would certify an operation has adhered to animal welfare and growing practices beyond what the USDA organic seal requires. The group hasn't yet adopted specific criteria, but its board reportedly plans to meet later this month.
It's uncertain what will happen next and whether legal action, additional certification, consumer action and/or something else not foreseen will occur. Given that a growing number of consumers support organic certification and are willing to pay more for it at retail, there's an incentive for the animal agriculture sector to pay attention and adopt stronger standards on its own. But with the current administration rolling back regulations, particularly those implemented under the previous regime, it's tough to see a way past policy gridlock in this area anytime soon.