The U.S. Department of Agriculture wants to eliminate a new rule that would set higher welfare standards for certified organic meats, reversing years of USDA policymaking and yielding millions of dollars in savings for meatpackers.
The Trump administration ruled on Friday that it would withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule, saying it exceeds its statutory authority.
The “broadly prescriptive” regulations — which clarified how organic farmers and producers must treat animals — should be limited to health care practices rather than encompass individual animal-welfare concerns, according to the Department of Agriculture.
In effect, the ruling suggested that “USDA Organic” animals don’t need to be treated more humanely than conventionally raised animals.
After three delays, it’s been a long time coming for the USDA to act definitively on the animal handling rules, said Anne Fanatico, a poultry science professor at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Eliminating the new rules all-together is shocking, she said.
The Obama-era rule, drafted April 2016, would have extended animal-welfare regulations for the treatment of “USDA Organic” poultry and livestock. The final rule governed an animal’s access to light and outdoor space and covered transportation and slaughter, among other things.
Large-scale poultry farms seeking organic certification would have been significantly affected by the rule, which required more square-footage per bird, and access to perches and litter made up of 50 percent soil, said Fanatico, who studied poultry science at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Conventional meat and egg companies, however, are concerned about limited land availability for outdoor access and the potential for increased mortality rates if they went organic under that rule, the USDA said.
“Organic meats have not developed on a broad scale because of the cost of production,” said Travis Justice, chief economist of the Arkansas Farm Bureau.
Based on USDA surveys, about half of the existing egg farms wouldn’t be able to acquire additional land to comply with the final rule. Also, some existing slaughterhouses and livestock transport services would have to surrender their organic certification under the proposed rule, according to the USDA.
If the final rule is withdrawn, producers are estimated to save upwards of $31 million per year, said the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Services.
The National Pork Producers Council issued its support on Friday, saying the production standards had “nothing to do with the basic concept of ‘organic.’”
An organic foods advocacy group said Friday that it was dismayed with the USDA’s decision.
“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,” said the Organic Trade Association. “Most striking is the administration’s continued confusion that organic standards are mandatory rather than voluntary.”
If finalized, the existing organic livestock and poultry regulations would remain effective. A USDA withdrawal notice was published in the Federal Register earlier this week.
Public comment on the USDA’s proposal to withdraw the rule will be accepted for the next 30 days ending Jan. 18, according to the agency’s website. The rule would have taken effect on May 14, after a delay in November from the Republican-led administration. Over 100 comments have been posted so far.