Years in the Making, Organic Animal Welfare Rules Killed by Trump's USDA | Civil Eats

Years in the Making, Organic Animal Welfare Rules Killed by Trump’s USDA

The decision nullifies 14 years of policymaking in a process mandated by Congress, and marks an about-face for the agency.

happy hens pecking in a farm field

[Update: On May 6, 2019, the federal Ninth District Court of Appeas granted the Center for Food Safety access to Trump Administration documentation and communications about the decision to withdraw from the OLPP, allowing the Center and other organizations to continue their legal efforts to implement the OLPP.]

[Update: On March 12, 2018, the USDA announced that it would withdraw the OLPP rules, ending the possibility that they would be implemented.]

As we’ve written about before, the animals behind your certified organic meat, eggs, and dairy may have been treated more humanely than their conventional counterparts. But the odds are just as high—especially if you’re buying them from a large producer at a relatively low price—that they haven’t been.

All that was set to change under the Obama Administration, as a group of farmers and advocates pushed for many years to see new rules, called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP), put in place. The rules were finalized on January 18, 2017, but that didn’t stop the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from delaying them multiple times in the wake of President Trump’s post-inauguration regulatory freeze. Then, in a Friday announcement, the agency published its decision to abolish the OLPP all together.

Scheduled to go into effect on May 14, 2018, and now it its fifth “final” version, the OLPP specified a set of standards for organic livestock and poultry designed to minimize stress, facilitate natural behaviors, and promote well-being. Championed throughout the organic industry—from farmers to consumer groups to retailers and animal-welfare advocates—the OLPP was intended as a course correction for the $43 billion food industry, formulated to bring organic dairy, eggs, and meat production into line with consumer expectations of higher animal welfare. Trust in the organic seal depended on it, some advocates insisted.

But this latest USDA decision codifies the big rift between the majority of certified organic producers, who follow the spirit of the law, and the fewer, much larger producers who seek to gain market advantage, primarily by continuously confining animals that are required by law to have outdoor access. The USDA’s ruling preserves the status quo, and fails to establish the USDA Organic label as the “gold standard” for organics that OLPP promised.

After the recent ruling by the National Organic Standards Board to continue certifying some hydroponic operations as organic—and the ensuing anger from many traditional organic growers—and several efforts by the mainstream media to highlight sizable gaps between the spirit and the letter of the law when it comes to certification, last week’s ruling adds to the existing turmoil in the organic industry. It also promises to add fuel to the fire for those seeking to carve out new better-than-organic labels such as “Certified Regenerative.”

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) immediately decried the USDA’s decision on Friday, pointing to the immense support from all sectors of the organic industry and the public at large. “By the department’s own count, out of the more than 47,000 comments the department received in the last public comment period … 99 percent were in favor of the rule becoming effective without further delay on Nov. 14,” said OTA in a statement. As we reported in September, OTA sued the USDA, alleging that the agency unlawfully delayed the OLPP and failed to protect the integrity of the organic label.

Organic producers, consumer groups, and animal-welfare organizations also reacted in force. “Today’s announcement is a subversion of comprehensive federal animal welfare standards approved by the USDA,” said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States, “and it will prove crippling to family farmers all across the nation who treat their animals well and want to be able to market their products under an authentic ‘organic’ label.”

An About-Face from the USDA

Friday’s decision has nullified 14 years of policymaking in a process mandated by Congress, and marks an about-face for the USDA. When the animal welfare rules were first published for public comment in April 2016, the agency’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) Director Paul Lewis asserted that they were necessary “to better ensure consistent compliance by certified organic operations” and “to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent and uniform standard.”

Eighteen months later, Lewis concluded that OLPP “would exceed the USDA’s statutory authority” as established by the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. In interpreting the law, the agency stated that organic regulation should be limited to “health care practices” and should not “encompass stand-alone animal welfare concerns.” AMS also reassessed the financial costs to farmers and consumers and found cause for concern that it could “hamper market-driven innovation and evolution and impose unnecessary regulatory burdens.”

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The AMS rationale for the withdrawal echoes some of the loudest opposition from Big Ag industry groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). After the last delay on November 14, Farm Bureau president Zippy Duvall praised Agriculture Secretary Perdue, stating that the OLPP was “pushing an agenda rather than advancing food safety or animal welfare” and called for its complete withdrawal. On Friday, NPPC reasserted its position that the new rules exceeded the agency’s authority and “the fact that animal production practices have nothing to do with the basic concept of ‘organic.’”

Many critics have called out the USDA for pandering to industry interests. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals president and CEO Matt Bershadker said, “This is yet another example of the USDA manipulating its rule-making process to benefit Big Agriculture interests and, in the process, abandoning its duty to support responsible organic farmers and consumers who have fought alongside animal advocates for nearly two decades to make this rule a reality.”

Much of the OLPP concentrated on indoor and outdoor space provisions for poultry and specifically outlawed calling covered porches sufficient outdoor access. This inflamed large egg producers, including Cal-Maine, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, and others that cited biosecurity hazards. They raised the alarm to Senators Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan) who, as members of the senate agriculture committee, threatened appropriations riders to defund OLPP throughout its passage at the USDA.

The organic egg market is flooded with eggs from big egg companies that are indistinct from conventional cage-free eggs other than the hen’s feed. This two-fold organic market unfairly disadvantages smaller farmers who face higher costs of production and compete for market share. It also engenders consumer confusion over the meaning of the organic label, which organic industry and consumer advocates fear will erode the value of USDA organic label.

But USDA under Perdue and Trump no longer sees it that way. In its latest reassessment, AMS found “little, if any, economic justification for the OLPP final rule.” In fact, the agency acknowledges the “variance in production practices within the organic egg sector” and asserted that “as more consumers become aware of this disparity, they will either seek specific brands of organic eggs or seek animal welfare labels in addition to the USDA Organic seal.”

This laissez-faire stance is consistent with the Trump-era USDA’s position on other Obama-era regulations that pit Big Ag against smaller farms, such as the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration’s Farm Farmer Practices Rule (known as the GIPSA rules)—which once promised to level the playing field for small meat producers, but has sense been watered down and then withdrawn all together—and the Waters of the United States (WOTUS) rule, which was an early casualty of the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback.

“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,” OTA commented in its statement.

Advocates argue that creating a consistent and uniform standard for organic production practices for farm animals was precisely the purpose of the decades-long process to create the OLPP rule for the national, voluntary organic program administered by the USDA.

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The USDA has reopened a 30-day comment period pursuant to publication in the Federal Register that will end on January 17. This concludes a full year of AMS punting OLPP, despite that fact that just 28 commenters on public record (out of over 47,000) supported its withdrawal.

“This is a clear case of the Trump Administration ignoring public feedback to follow through on its own politicized wishes,” said a joint statement from four members of Congress, including Representative Chellie Pingree, a Maine organic farmer and a Democrat on the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture. “This undermining of the public process is absolutely indefensible and should not be allowed to stand.”

Meanwhile, OTA’s federal lawsuit to force the USDA’s hand is in limbo, but the organization promises to continue the fight. Animal-welfare organizations are also reassessing their campaign strategies against an administration wherein public opinion seems to have no currency.

As HSUS president Pacelle put it, “We are appalled by this action, and plan to mount a major effort to reverse a decision that will contribute to hollowing out rural communities and that will allow factory farmers to trick the public and sell their products at a premium under a deficient organic label.”

Lynne Curry is a freelance food journalist based in a cattle and wheat-growing region of eastern Oregon. The author of Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Beef with Recipes for Every Cut, she is currently working on a book about pasture-raised foods. A professional cook and former farm-to-table restaurant owner, she blogs about seasonal cooking at Forage. Read more >

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  1. Roussin Lucille
    This is a betrayal of Americans and especially the efforts of organic farmers
  2. Don't shoot me, but this might be a good thing.

    If the humane handling rule went into effect, it's almost guaranteed that today's GOP dominated Congress would use the Congressional Review Act to kill it. This means it would be almost impossible to get a rule like it passed again in the future.

    If Trump's admin withdraws the rule, in a few years, when we get a decent President again, we can just re-establish the rule.
    I would like to hear the other side of this story, if there is one. At times, I've been unhappy about a bill, wondering why it was thrown out, only to find that it was missing some important factor, creating new problems, etc. I would like to see fair press, hear the other side, then make an educated decision based on ALL the facts.
  4. John Wiggins
    You got beat by common sense.
  5. Tim Usher
    America has had enough. Liberals slaughter babies in the womb without remorse for their pain and suffering. And yet you want to blame our president for the plight of chickens.

    You’re kicking a hornets nest.
  6. I do think tying HSUS agenda to define organic farming does no service to organic farming. I don't know the details of the original OLPP, but it seems to me that livestock on an organic farm are, by definition, humanely raised -- you need to take care of your livestock, or they will not take care of you. If you add HSUS definition, you add a large layer of agenda-driven certification hurdles that would probably end up costing money -- just for certification structure, to say nothing of potential infrastructure costs. Instead, how 'bout defining "organic" and "natural" in terms of input and output that aligns with big industry -- use their own terms to raise product above mass production norms. Consumers want that.
    • well, perhaps you ought to read this 2001 piece for context:
  7. It appears we need to sit back and wait out this current administration - if you can call it an administration - as the could care less about small farmers or the need to bring clarity to the organic industry. As individuals we need to take responsibility to do our homework around the brands we buy. And use our buying power to make our needs known.
  8. Cydney Joseph
    The proposed practices have been long in the making, carefully considered, rewritten and delayed several times, finally agreed upon, and set to pass. They are essential for the health and welfare of people and animals and for truth and transparency in food production, distribution, and marketing. The clarity they bring has long been needed in the food industry, to make it clear what "organic" means to consumers and businesses. As a consumer, I am invested in healthy, safe food, in allowing agricultural animals, who are at our mercy, to exist in something resembling their natural environment during the time they are alive, and in integrity in our federal agencies. Please - please - please - reinstate the plan for the proposed rule to go into effect
  9. R Walker
    Not surprising this happened in the Trump era. When I see how little public opinion matters to the USDA and AMS, and Congress, this is not correct government but corrupt government. I can buy local organic or non-organic eggs at my local food co-op. I am fortunate. Many people cannot; plus many people think they are buying great eggs when they purchase organic eggs from large scale producers when in fact these chickens are in factory farm type conditions. Sorry to hear this news. Thank you.
  10. Ronald Kappes
    The only way to return common sense & compassion to this industry is to replace the nut (er President) at the top who appoints these incompetents. Let's not forget he was 3 million votes short of a true majority & we can dump him in 2020 if we want to.
  11. Sybil Augustine
    Please don't let this insane administration do yet another horrible thing to make the average person's life worse (not to mention all of the animals!) simply in order to benefit wealthy corporations.
  12. The chemsky above the chickens makes this a highly appropriate photo.
  13. without wanting to unduly justify the trump administration (i did not vote for him), i think the tone on this article could be improved by a statement recognizing that this kind of betrayal of "organic" has been ongoing. clinton, bush, and obama also did their share to delay, sidetrack, and diminish the intent and meaning of the term, as originated by the organic producers themselves. it just happens that it is now trump's turn - and he's a big lightening rod.

    it was always a mistake for the organic movement to enter into an alliance with the government to set and enforce standards. this last fall's NOP decision that hydroponic will not be banned from using the term "organic" even though no soil is used in their industrialized, high-energy, offsite-supplement use production process ought to be the last straw for those who believe in real organic.

    the cornucopia group and the rodale institute, along with patagonia company, are calling for a new label. i support that move. but this time it should be peer-based, not government, with involved producers engaged in peer-reviews of producers who seek to use the new label.

    the model for that could be the peer-review process for accredited universities.
  14. Charles Cone
    I am not so sure that Pres. Trump personally knows about this decision to abolish the OLPP. The USDA is overrun by Monsanto puppets. Sunny Perdue of Georgia, David Perdue of Georgia and the University of Georgia and ABAC in Tifton, Ga. are all funded by Monsanto money. Gary Black the Agricultural Secretary of Georgia was a lobbyist for Monsanto and is still strongly pro-Monsanto. Monsanto runs Georgia farmers and colleges. Someone needs to investigate Monsanto's grasp on the state of Georgia.
    Obama Care would go away if the food system is cleaned up. Look at the data for Georgia and the USA on disease and deaths. The USA pays the Insurance Companies the highest health care premiums in the work. With the worst record on infant fatalities, cancer, diabetes, education of the children, etc.
    Monday, Dec. 12, 2016 by: S.D. Wells Tags: U.S. Court of Appeals: States and counties can ban GMO crops despite federal laws see:

    Help us,
    Charles of Georgia
  15. David Anon
    Rumor, supposition, and innuendo. You blame the Trump administration, which had little-to-nothing to do with the decision by USDA, which lists a lack of authority as the reason for withdrawing the rule. Congress would have to authorize USDA to expand its enforcement to include what OFPA wanted, and it didn't. Thus, no final rule.

    You also ignore USDA's reasoning that there is NO evidence that anything *is* wrong with the current organic farming industry, and that these new rules would stifle new and small companies that might otherwise come up with better ways of doing things.

    Way to misreport your news, folks. But hey, anything to get more clicks, right?
  16. Kathy mason
  17. Linda Fabrie
    Trump's un-doing of the USDA's struggle to generate what America's farmers have strived for at this time, when HSUS almost reached the summit, is an example of his disgusting un-professional, in-humane ignorance he has for the USA. Maybe we should send him to one of the S--- Hole countries with no advantages he has as the worst president our United States has ever seen. He obviously has no respect for strife struggling generations of humans who have made agriculture a well respected AMERICAN life of present and past history.
  18. What are the chances of various pro-organic and pro-animal welfare groups collaborating to sue the FDA, or other Federal agency that is behind this rollback?
  19. Roger S. Beadle
    Corporate profit over proven science is the mantra of the Trump administration. Their chant of "drain the swamp" and unfortunately turned into "may the swamp runneth over".
  20. Jennifer Chapman
    Protect the integrity of the organic label and protect our cherished organic farmers, some of us NEED them.
  21. Cirrelda Snider-Bryan
    I support the continuance of the process that has designated humane treatment for livestock. As begun in Jewish practices of old, we need to make sure that the organic label means no factory conditions.
  22. Ruth Turpin
    We will have to pressure stores as well as informing ourselves. We need a serious campaign on many different levels.
  23. I support the OLPP’s initiative, as originally put forth some 14 years ago.
    In very basic terms, WE INGEST, EAT, ALL THE NUTRUTION, AS WELL AS THE PHYSICAL TREATMENT THESE ANIMALS HAVE ENCOUNTERED. We believe in these standards and are many times willing to pay a premium for this quality. Do not lower the bar to have many bigger Ag companies trick us into thinking that they are meeting these high standards. We see right through this action and are willing to fight it!

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