OTA continues to work to strengthen livestock requirements

By Gwendolyn Wyard, OTA’s Senior Director, Regulatory and Technical Affairs, and Nate Lewis, OTA’s Senior Crops and Livestock Specialist

Developing any federal regulation takes a considerable amount of time and energy. The organic sector has an additional layer to this process, as most new organic regulations originate as recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) and undergo an arduous journey of public scrutiny and rulemaking. The long-awaited ‘Origin of Livestock’ proposed rule released this summer illustrates the deliberate and transparent steps that must occur for an organic production concept to become codified in the federal regulations. 

Organic dairy farmers have always been allowed to transition non-organic animals to organic production, and sell dairy products from those cows as certified organic. This is an allowance made in the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). The organic regulations further codify this allowance, making a provision for a single distinct herd to be transitioned to organic production after which all new animals must be organic from the last-third of gestation (the requirement for the origin of all slaughter animals).

By using the term “a single distinct herd” in the regulations, an uneven playing field was created between producers who converted their existing conventional dairy herd to organic and producers who built a new organic dairy operation and purchased their animals over time. Since the latter type of operation did not ever convert “a single distinct herd,” they could continue to purchase non-organic animals and continuously transition these replacements to organic production—a management approach not allowed to dairy producers who had already transitioned a single distinct herd.

The organic sector recognized this uneven playing field, and worked through our processes to ensure all dairy producers were regulated in a consistent manner. This process to ensure consistency started with a 2003 recommendation by NOSB to USDA that read: “Once a dairy operation has been converted to organic production, all dairy animals, including all young stock whether born on or brought onto the operation, shall be under organic management from the last third of the mother’s gestation.” This recommendation aimed to level the playing field by tying the allowance for transitioning non-organic dairy animals to the “operation” rather than the “single distinct herd.” This shift is reflected in the proposed regulation released this past summer where USDA proposes to tie the transition allowance to each “producer.” As a proposed rule, it is open to public comment.

OTA organized a task force to help shape our comments to USDA. The task force represented the full supply chain—farmers, handlers, processors and retailers—for organic livestock production, and included participation from the livestock sectors represented on OTA’s Farmers Advisory Council. OTA subsequently submitted comments generally in support of the proposed rule, as the shift from “single distinct herd” to “producer” would accomplish much of what the organic sector and NOSB have requested. Our comments also provide additional suggestions to USDA for further refinement. Read the full set of OTA comments on the ‘Origin of Livestock’ proposed rule.

With the comment period now closed, USDA will consider the input submitted through the public comment process, evaluate whether suggested changes to the proposed rule are warranted and within its legal authority, and move forward to publish a final rule. Only after the final rule is published will the new regulations take effect.

It is a long road from concept to final rule, especially for the organic sector. However, the deliberate and transparent steps that usher regulatory concepts from the NOSB recommendation to the final rule help to ensure that the regulations remain true to the intent of the law and are adapted in an appropriate manner as the organic sector grows.  

OTA recommendations to strengthen the proposed rule

  • One-time transition should be tied to each individual “certified operation” (that meets the definition of a proposed new term: “dairy operation”) rather than “producer” because this term and approach are better understood by the entire organic supply chain and accomplish the same restrictions in how origin of livestock is regulated on organic dairy operations.
  • Breeder stock used to produce organic offspring should not be allowed to rotate in and out of organic production. The regulations should reflect the language contained in OFPA, which allows the purchase of non-organic breeding stock from any source.
  • Third-year transitional crops fed to transitioning dairy animals must be produced on the certified dairy operation and described in its Organic System Plan.
  • Issuance of a final rule should include an 18-month implementation period to allow adequate time for businesses to adjust their practices and for education and enforcement of the rule revisions.
  • Disallowing a one-time transition for fiber-bearing animals puts U.S. livestock producers at a global disadvantage in accessing organic textile markets. Instead, fiber animals should be allowed to be transitioned into organic production like dairy animals. This will put organic producers in the U.S. on the same playing field as their international counterparts, and provide access to a growing global market for organic textiles and fiber. //