Congressmen take USDA to task for delaying organic industry animal welfare rule

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Congressmen scold USDA for organic industry animal welfare rule delay

Related tags Final rule Regulation Organic food

Members of Congress chastise the US Department of Agriculture in a Jan. 17 letter for threatening to withdraw a widely popular final rule passed in the 11th hour of the Obama Administration that would heighten animal welfare standards for organic producers.

USDA announced in December that it intended to withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule, which outlined sweeping changes in how organic animals are housed, transported and slaughtered, because the department claimed the rule exceeds the statutory authority of the National Organic Program.

However, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. Peter DeFazio, argue in their letter ​ that USDA’s belief that additional regulatory standards for the care of organically produced livestock is limited to health care practices similar to those specified by Congress in the statute is a “misinterpretation”​ of the department’s regulatory authority under the Organic Foods Protection Act of 1990.

“As the original sponsors of the organic legislation, we write to make clear that this recently-developoed belief is misguided, as the statutory language and legislative history make clear,”​ they write.

They argue that “it would not have made any sense for Congress to constrict the influence of the [National Organic Standards Board] in the way AMS’s current interpretation does,”​ in part because the organic livestock sector was still in it is infancy when the regulations were drafted.

“We recognized the immense opportunity for growth, and therefore proposed a partnership model between government and private organizations in standard setting and certification. This resulted in the idea behind the National Organics Standards Board, which could use the growing experience of the private, grassroots farmers to shape organic standards,”​ the congressmen write.

“With respect to the ‘health care’ provision alluded to by AMS in the latest rulemaking,”​ they add, “it is true that Congress enumerated three prohibited practices regarding the application of antibiotics, synthetic parasiticides and other medications. However, Congress also clearly required the NOSB to recommend standards ‘in addition to’ these ‘for the care of livestock.’”

They point out that in the Senate Report that accompanied the rulemaking, Congress said this provision pertains to medications “and the need to provide humane conditions for livestock rearing.”

In addition to this regulatory framework, the congressmen note that the animal welfare rule “is consistent with recommendations provided by USDA’s Office of Inspector General, and nine separate recommendations from the NOSB.”

The rule also will “align regulatory language and congressional intent to enable producers and consumers to readily discern the required practices for organic poultry production and to differentiate the products in the marketplace.”

As such, they argue the rule should be reinstated.

OTA argues for withdrawal of the withdrawal

The Organic Trade Association, which has vehemently opposed the rule’s delay, also argues in comments filed the same day that the most recent threat to withdraw the rule fails to consult the NOSB and as such violates the OFPA.

It also argues that the 30 days USDA gave stakeholders to comment on the withdrawal was not enough time, given USDA took nearly 20 months to assess the key questions.

“If USDA could not detect the computational flaws it now claims exist during the initial rulemaking and could only do so after 11 additional months, it is unrealistic to expect the affected parties to complete their analysis and preparation of comments over the 30-day period allowed by the rulemaking,”​ it adds.

The trade group also argues the mathematical errors that USDA alleges were in the calculation of benefits for the final rule are “insubstantial in the light of the overall purpose of the OFPA and the OLPP.”

The trade group also reiterates its case for the final rule, which includes in part the idea that consumers are confused by current ambiguities in animal welfare descriptions under the organic sector and that such confusion harms consumers and the industry.

Ultimately, OTA says the notice of withdrawal should be withdrawn and the OLPP should be implemented “without further delay.”

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