Vilsack announces plan to revive organic livestock, poultry rule
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced last week that USDA will reconsider the Trump administration’s Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule.
“We intend to reconsider the prior administration’s interpretation that the Organic Foods Production Act does not authorize USDA to regulate the practices that were the subject of the 2017 Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule,” Vilsack said in a statement on Thursday, June 17.
“I have directed the National Organic Program to begin a rulemaking to address this statutory interpretation and to include a proposal to disallow the use of porches as outdoor space in organic production over time and on other topics that were the subject of the OLPP final rule. We anticipate sending the proposed rule to OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] within six to nine months from the date of the remand. We look forward to receiving public comments on those topics and, after reviewing the comments, USDA will publish a final rule.”
The Organic Trade Association said in a news release that Vilsack had previewed the rule on Wednesday when he spoke to group’s annual membership meeting, which 250 members attended online.
“Vilsack laid out a forward-looking agenda for the organic sector, including a vow to resolve the ongoing issue over USDA’s failure to implement a critical and fully vetted organic animal welfare regulation,” OTA said.
OTA added that it “welcomes Secretary Vilsack’s acknowledgement that the department is walking away from the illegal Trump withdrawal of the organic animal welfare rule, and its acknowledgement that porches should not qualify as outdoor access in organic poultry operations.”
“The USDA has already conceded that its economic analysis underpinning the Trump withdrawal of the OLPP rule is flawed. We hope that USDA’s acknowledgement of these matters that are of grave importance to the organic industry facilitates a full and timely resolution of this critical issue.”
OTA noted that the rule has been in the courts since 2017 when the association took legal action to defend organic standards.
OTA said Vilsack told its members, “We understand, appreciate the concern of getting this done, getting it done right, getting it done in a way that preserves the brand … I am committed and I committed our team to an accelerated approval process.”
OTA said Vilsack had addressed “positively the majority of the Organic Trade Association’s priorities for the Biden administration” and said, “I understand and appreciate, that we’ve got some work to do in rebuilding the trust between the department and the [organic] industry. And I am committed to that. And those who work at USDA are committed to that.”
OTA said Vilsack also announced other actions:
▪ Working to finalize the Origin of Livestock rule in 2021;
▪ Re-establishing the position of USDA organic policy adviser;
▪ Increasing by “tens of millions of dollars” the funds available through USDA’s Organic Certification Cost Share program to help farmers transitioning to organic;
▪ Expanding the procurement for USDA’s emergency feeding programs to “small- and medium-sized distribution systems,” and giving “socially disadvantaged producers” access to more federal procurement dollars;
▪ Significantly expanding processing capacity in the U.S. through a soon-to-be-announced USDA initiative to “provide resources that could be leveraged with state economic development, resources, private sector investment, and others” to build out processing capacity, boost competition and provide value-added products with more processing outlets;
▪ Beefing up organic enforcement and “expanding the number and the diversity of those who will be involved in inspections and certifications;”
▪ Prioritizing climate-smart agriculture and regenerative practices, and creating “new revenue streams for producers who are embracing climate-smart agricultural practices in a way that is beneficial to farmers.”
“We are working hard to protect the [organic] brand and to expand a number of issues and opportunities for the organic industry … all designed to provide a strong message of the significance and importance that I place personally, and that the department places on this industry,” said Vilsack.
“We recognize the importance of it, we recognize the value-added opportunities that it presents, and we think it is an important — a very important part of the industry that will help us to a much better, climate-friendly agriculture.”
OTA said that following the annual meeting, “members had the opportunity to participate virtually in an off-the-record listening session with the White House.”
“During the robust 30-minute session, members expressed their most pressing messages about organic. This included requests that organic have a seat at the table in any climate change discussions and solutions, that organic be included in farm-to-school programs, and that critical technical assistance be provided for organic farmers, particularly for those seeking to transition to organic.”
The Center for Food Safety called Vilsack’s announcement on the livestock and poultry practices rule “a victory for organic farmers, advocates, and animal welfare.”
“After four years of hard-fought litigation, the Biden administration is recognizing that the Trump withdrawal decision was inconsistent with organic standards and principles,” said Amy van Saun, senior attorney at Center for Food Safety and counsel in the litigation.
“This is a major victory for all those who care about a meaningful organic label,” said van Saun. “Finally, USDA will close the loophole allowing factory farms to produce ‘organic’ eggs and chicken, and level the playing field for real organic farmers already providing high welfare to their animals.”
“Consumer trust in the USDA Certified Organic label is vital and assures the success of the organic seal in the marketplace,” said Abby Youngblood, executive director at the National Organic Coalition, a plaintiff in the case.
“Reinstating the organic animal welfare rule is a huge victory in securing the trust of consumers and farmers alike who expect meaningful and consistent standards for animal welfare under the Organic label,” Youngblood said.
CFS explained that “CFS and its allies sued the Trump USDA in March 2018. The Trump administration initially claimed the organizations lacked legal standing to challenge the withdrawal decision. In August 2018, a federal court rejected these arguments. The court held that the withdrawal of the rule that set organic animal welfare standards injures the organizations’ members because it ‘undermines the organic label’ for consumers.
“In 2019, a federal court again sided with CFS and allies, ruling that USDA could not hide communications and documents that led to the controversial withdrawal. The case is currently stayed for settlement discussions.”
“We’re thrilled the Biden administration will reissue the organics rule and we urge them to do so as soon as possible to improve the lives of millions of farm animals,” said Peter Brandt, managing attorney for Farm Animals at The Humane Society of the United States, a plaintiff in the case.
“Like laws in California and many other states, the rule ensured that pigs, chickens, and other farm animals could not be tightly confined, and it closed a loophole that allowed large poultry companies to skirt the law by using skimpy screened-in porches to satisfy outdoor access requirements.”
CFS added, “The OLPP rule was the culmination of over a decade of work by organic stakeholders and the National Organic Standards Board.”
“Most notably, it ensured adequate space and outdoor access for organic poultry by establishing clear and enforceable minimum spacing requirements and specifying the quality of outdoor space that must be provided. It also clarified outdoor access for other organic animals, like cows, and prohibited inhumane physical alterations, like de-beaking and tail docking.
“The Trump administration delayed the final rule’s effective date three times, and then formally withdrew it. USDA claimed the animal care regulations could not be issued because the agency lacked the authority to regulate practices such as animal space and preventative health care for livestock under the organic label.”
“We are glad the court has cleared the way for the National Organic Program to finally align with the expectations of consumers,” said Cristina Stella, managing attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a plaintiff in the case.
“Confusing consumers is a hallmark of industrial animal agriculture, and restoring the intended meaning of the organic label is a welcome step toward increasing transparency.”
CFS concluded, “By gutting the rule, the Trump administration made a complete reversal of the legal and policy positions that the USDA has held for 28 years, since the inception of organic, and what organic consumers and farmers believe: that organic standards do include considerations of livestock care and welfare. It also claimed that the regulations would be costly, despite its own economic analysis finding only minor costs.”
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