Advocacy ongoing for organic animal welfare final rule

The organic industry has been working on defining and applying animal welfare requirements to the organic standards for over a decade. This work culminated in a final rule released just prior to the Administration change in January. Since that time, the effective date of the final rule has been delayed twice. Accompanying the most recent delay to November 14, the U.S. Department of Agriculture opened a comment period asking the public to weigh in on four options:

(1) Let the rule become effective. This means that the rule would become effective on November 14, 2017.

(2) Suspend the rule indefinitely. During the suspension, USDA could consider whether to implement, modify or withdraw the final rule.

(3) Delay the effective date of the rule further, beyond November 14.

(4) Withdraw the rule so that USDA would not pursue implementation of the rule.

With only a 30-day comment period, it was critical that organic livestock producers, companies, and consumers weigh in. The response was resounding. Of over 47,000 comments filed, only a few hundred did not support seeing the rule become effective on November 14. The Organic Trade Association’s view is that USDA would be ignoring the will and work of the organic industry by choosing any other option than Option 1 allowing the rule to become effective without further delays.

Who opposes this rule?

Those opposing the final Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule include a small handful of organic producers who have invested in systems where porches provide the required outdoor access for their flocks, and who are reluctant to adjust their systems to the requirements of the new final regulations. Conventional commodity groups share this opposition, questioning USDA’s legal authority to promulgate the rule, raising the specter of a shortage of organic supplies should the rule become effective, and citing production concerns such as biosecurity and food safety. 

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 affords USDA broad authority to develop rules that govern organic production, including the care of livestock and poultry. Years of input and comments directly from organic producers to the National Organic Standards Board and USDA itself have shaped the final rule to ensure it strikes the right balance between market demands for organic and the realities of commercial-scale production. 

The fact that the majority of organic producers support this rule coupled with a generous implementation timeline of up to five years for some of the requirements will allow producers to adjust gradually, and should allay concerns that it will result in tighter organic supplies. Lastly, the final rule does not change the existing requirement that all organic livestock and poultry have access to the outdoors, nor does it force producers to expose their animals to diseases. The organic standards have always had, and will continue to have, provisions that allow for temporary confinement of organic livestock and poultry when there are risks to the animals health, such as disease outbreaks. Maintaining these provisions, the final rule will not put organic livestock and poultry at a greater risk for disease outbreaks.

Who supports this rule?

Support for the final rule encompasses the entire organic supply chain from producer to consumer. In addition, many consumers see strong animal welfare requirements as the next step in the evolution of the organic standards, and want to see this rule implemented. Organic brands and food manufacturers view refining and strengthening the organic standards as key to maintaining consumer trust in the organic seal and marketplace. Producers are clamoring for clearer standards that provide a level playing field. 

The farmers and companies who choose to obtain organic certification want the standards to evolve to accommodate a dynamic set of market demands. They have contributed to shaping the final rule and understandably now want to see it go into effect.

Standard reflects industry consensus

Throughout the process, the Organic Trade Association has steadily supported the need to clarify and further define these aspects of the organic standards. OTA provided comments to the National Organic Standards Board on its numerous iterations of proposals and discussion documents leading up to the rare unanimous final recommendation to USDA in 2011. Our members also participated in a task force to shape the trade association’s comments to USDA when the proposed rule was released last year.

Most recently, when USDA opened yet another comment period and asked the public how they should proceed, the Organic Trade Association launched an advocacy campaign to facilitate stakeholder weigh-in on the fate of this final rule.  Using social media and other electronic platforms, the campaign rallied farmers, companies, and consumers to file comments supporting having the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule become effective without further delay. At least 20 percent of the over 47,000 comments submitted were a direct result of our advocacy campaign.

Crossing the finish line

The Organic Trade Association strongly supported “Option 1” during this open comment period, with its comments outlining why allowing the rule to become effective in November is the necessary path to ensure organic’s continued success in the marketplace. 

 • The final rule is the product of over a decade of input from consumers, farmers, processors, retailers, veterinarians, and experts in animal welfare. The rule began its long journey through the regulatory process mandated by Congress in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.  Reversing course at this point would undermine the organic regulatory process and seriously compromise consumer confidence.

 • The final rule does not compromise biosecurity measures and food safety requirements. There is no new scientific evidence to suggest that the final rule increases any of these risks, and the temporary confinement provisions included ensure that organic producers are not forced to subject their animals to health risks.

 • USDA has the authority to promulgate this rule despite some comments that suggest otherwise. The Organic Foods Production Act specifically authorizes the National Organic Standards Board to “recommend to the Secretary standards in addition to those in paragraph (1) for the care of livestock to ensure that such livestock is organically produced.” This rule does not go beyond its stated purpose. Instead, it ensures consistency that is currently lacking.

 • The decision to become organic is voluntary, and the USDA organic standards have always called for outdoor access. Organic producers voluntarily enter the organic market with the understanding that the rules will evolve over time and that their practices will need to adjust to market demands. Without the ability to deliver a product that keeps up with the evolving consumer preference and market demand, the relevance of the USDA Organic seal is at stake, and it will have long-term detrimental effects on the entire industry.

 • Organic stakeholders have shaped this organic standard through a consensus process.  The vast majority of comments received on this rule are in support of Option 1.  Those opposed either do not represent certified organic businesses and/or they are not recognizing the decade-long consensus-building process that led to a unanimous National Organic Standards Board recommendation and the final Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule.

Our position is clear: the regulation should become effective without any further delay. Consequently, the Organic Trade Association will ensure that any attempt to derail this progress will be challenged by a strong and organized organic industry that wants to keep the organic label in high esteem in the marketplace. //