WASHINGTON—In a victory for organic farmers, advocates, and animal welfare, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced today that it will be reinstating animal welfare standards on farms producing organic meat that were withdrawn during the Trump Administration. Secretary Vilsack announced that the USDA will "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 (OLPP) final rule," including meaningful outdoor access for organic chickens and other animal welfare improvements. The Secretary "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," and make other improvements to the original rule.
"After 4 years of hard-fought litigation, the Biden administration is recognizing that the Trump withdrawal decision was inconsistent with organic standards and principles. This is a major victory for all those who care about a meaningful organic label," said Amy van Saun, senior attorney at Center for Food Safety (CFS) and counsel in the litigation. "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."
In January 2017, the Obama USDA published the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practice rule to improve animal welfare standards on farms producing organic meat, particularly requiring more space and outdoor access for egg-laying hens and chickens. Despite overwhelming support for the standards by the organic community, the Trump USDA withdrew the rule in 2018. In response, CFS filed a lawsuit challenging the withdrawal of the rule, currently in settlement discussions. Now, the Biden USDA is committing to reinstating the rule designed to strengthen the minimum requirements for the care and well-being of animals on organic farms and reaffirming its authority to set animal welfare standards in the National Organic Program. USDA will publish the rule for notice and comment, allowing for potential improvements to the OLPP.
"Consumer trust in the USDA Certified Organic label is vital and assures the success of the organic seal in the marketplace. The announcement that USDA plans to reinstate the organic animal welfare rule is an important milestone on the path to restoring the trust of consumers and farmers alike who expect meaningful and consistent standards for animal welfare under the Organic label," said Abby Youngblood, executive director at the National Organic Coalition, a plaintiff in the case.
CFS and 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."
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. 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," said Cristina Stella, managing attorney at the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a plaintiff in the case.
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.
Represented by CFS legal counsel, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are Animal Legal Defense Fund, Center for Food Safety, Center for Environmental Health, Cultivate Oregon, International Center for Technology Assessment, the Humane Society of the United States, and the National Organic Coalition, nonprofits with missions that include protecting the integrity of the organic label.
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