GOP Lawmakers Move to Block New Animal Welfare Standards in Organic | Civil Eats

GOP Lawmakers Move to Block New Animal Welfare Standards in Organic

In this week’s Field Report, the organic industry fights back against Congressional efforts to halt the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards, the global food system is moving in the wrong direction on hunger and climate, and more. 

a female farmer stands in the field with her organically raised sheep and looks off at the distance, wondering why congress would try to kill the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards rule.

October 25, 2023 update: The USDA published the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards final rule, and organic industry and advocacy groups cheered the publication as a victory. The amendments to block the standards, if passed, could still impact the implementation and enforcement of the rule, but progress on spending bills in Congress remains stalled.

Although most people assume that the federal organic standards dictate exactly how farm animals are raised, language in the standards has long left wiggle room on issues like how much space each animal is given and how “outdoor access” is defined. That’s allowed some companies to raise animals in ways that many in the industry feel doesn’t align with what the public expects.

In response, for more than a decade, groups that represent organic farmers, food companies, and consumers have been working on a set of enforceable animal welfare standards that are currently very close to being finalized by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Earlier this month, however, Senator Roger Marshall (R-Kansas) quietly introduced a spending bill amendment that mirrored one introduced earlier in the summer by Representative Keith Self (R-Texas) in the House to halt the process. And if their proposals move forward, it could turn the entire effort on its head.

In a press statement, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) called the amendments “unjust and unwarranted” and said the development represented “a broader attempt to dismantle the National Organic Program.”

That’s because it’s skirting the collaborative process that involves careful evaluation by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), public meetings, and public comment, said OTA CEO Tom Chapman. That process “doesn’t matter if you can just get a couple of congressmen together to put a rider in a bill,” Chapman said. “This is just undermining the democratic process that’s in place to set the organic standards.”

With a government shutdown looming, no agreement in sight on numerous spending bills, and a farm bill process long delayed, a debate around how organic cattle and chickens should be raised may seem like small potatoes. But it’s a top priority for many organic farmers who feel they’re being undercut by companies that want to cash in on higher prices for organic while raising animals primarily indoors on large industrial farms.

And after setbacks like fraudulent grain entering the market undermined trust in organic, industry leaders believe making sure the label’s standards truly reflect consumers’ expectations is critical to organic’s growth.

The Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards rule represents the biggest push to make that happen. It would mandate that certified farmers, especially those who raise chickens, provide true outdoor access and more space for their birds, and make other tweaks to how animals are raised.

Based on NOSB recommendations from as far back as 2011, President Obama’s USDA finalized the rule (then called Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices) in early 2017, only to have it immediately killed by the Trump administration. Later that year, OTA sued the USDA.

When the Biden administration took over in 2021, Secretary Vilsack’s USDA said it would pick up the process, and a judge put a hold on the lawsuit while the agency reviewed the rule. The USDA reintroduced the rule for public comment in November 2022 and Vilsack said in May that the agency would finalize it before the end of this year.

What has those involved in the issue scratching their heads is that after many years of back and forth, a somewhat fractured organic industry had mostly come together on this particular topic. OTA’s analysis of nearly 40,000 comments submitted on the rule found about 90 percent of farmers and other industry representatives were in favor.

“While there are a handful of larger organic operations that oppose the rule, the industry is largely unified in our support,” said Abby Youngblood, the director of the National Organic Coalition.

That makes it hard to say what’s motivating the push to kill it, then, since neither Senator Marshall nor Representative Self has put out any public notice about the amendments. Chapman said OTA reached out to their offices in hopes of sharing the organic industry’s perspective and neither has granted the organization an audience to date. The lawmakers’ offices did not respond to multiple requests for comment from Civil Eats either.

And while neither has been involved in organic farm policy in the past, Senator Marshall is closely aligned with powerful groups that represent conventional agriculture interests, many of which have previously pushed back against the organic livestock standards. Both the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council, for example, submitted comments to the USDA encouraging it to scrap the rule.

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Last year, Senator Marshall featured American Farm Bureau Federation president Zippy Duvall on his video series called “Ag Talk.” And over the summer, Marshall became a champion of the industrial pork industry by introducing the EATS Act, which, if included in the upcoming farm bill, would overturn California’s law that sets higher animal welfare standards for pork and prevents other states from passing similar laws in the future. During the National Pork Producers Council’s Washington, D.C. fly-in this month, he was a featured speaker.

That link is causing many to speculate behind the scenes that Senator Marshall is set on pushing back against stricter rules for raising farm animals across the board, whether they’re part of the voluntary organic program or not.

“It seems to be that he doesn’t want anything that encourages treating animals more humanely,” said Jaydee Hansen, the policy director at the advocacy group Center for Food Safety. “It sets a bad precedent [for the industry], even if it’s within organic.”

In response to an inquiry from Civil Eats, a Farm Bureau representative ignored a question about whether or not it played a role in getting Senator Marshall or Representative Self to introduce the amendment but confirmed the organization’s opposition to the animal welfare rule.

And in a written response, RJ Layher, the Farm Bureau’s director of government affairs, hinted at the fact that the organization sees organic as a market opportunity and wants its members to be able to access that opportunity easily.

“We believe the current regulatory structure surrounding organic livestock and poultry production is sufficient and any changes could act as a barrier to entry for our members who are thinking about transitioning to organic production,” he said. The National Pork Producers Council did not respond to a request for comment.

The issue is that what the Farm Bureau sees as a barrier to entry, the organic community sees as the higher standards that effectively set their approach apart, and a coalition of groups are calling their senators and representatives to try to draw their attention to the issue at a chaotic time in D.C.

“The organic community will be deeply discouraged if Congress kills this rule after so many years of hard work and input from the organic industry to craft a rule that is fair and protects the integrity of the organic seal,” Youngblood said.

Read More:
Can New USDA Organic Standards for Animals Close the Welfare Gap?
Years in the Making, Organic Animal Welfare Rules Killed by Trump’s USDA
Next on the Supreme Court Docket: Farm Animal Welfare

Unlikely (Farm Bill) Bedfellows. As agriculture groups increased their lobbying for updates that would trigger higher payments in commodity programs and expanding crop insurance subsidies, conservative groups known for so-called free market principles joined forces with environmental groups to push back. Representatives from the Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, and others spoke alongside Scott Faber, the SVP of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group, at a virtual press conference last week.

Throughout the event, the speakers emphasized what they see as wasteful spending in farm bill programs. Faber, for example, noted that subsidies benefit larger, wealthier farms and hurt new and beginning farmers. Joshua Sewell of the nonpartisan Taxpayers for Common Sense pointed to the fact that taxpayers even subsidized crop insurance costs for a handful of billionaires, and that billions of dollars end up in the coffers of crop insurance agents and companies, not on farms.

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“No one is proposing farmers shouldn’t be able to receive crop insurance,” Faber said, but they argued that there should be stricter limits on who qualifies and how much they receive. Multiple speakers also used the opportunity to challenge House Republicans who present themselves as fiscal conservatives but who generally fail to challenge farm bill spending.

Read More:
How Crop Insurance Prevents Some Farmers From Adapting to Climate Change
This Farm Bill Really Matters. We Explain Why.

Progress, Thwarted. In advance of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Summit this week, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) released a report that found the global food system is moving in the wrong direction when it comes to eradicating hunger, improving nutrition, and fighting climate change. Report authors said that shocks in recent years—including the COVID-19 pandemic, wars, climate disasters, and inflation—have contributed to the backsliding on SDGs. Both undernourishment and food insecurity are up compared to 2019, agricultural losses attributed to climate-fueled disasters increased, and land degradation continued at an unsustainable pace. At the same time, the New York Times reported that despite climate commitments, food companies including McDonald’s, PepsiCo, and Chipotle have increased their emissions in recent years.

Read More:
Hunger Continues to Plague Americans. Here’s Why.
How the Latest Global Meat and Dairy Companies Evade Climate Scrutiny

Food System Litigators. Last week, the nonprofit organization Public Justice launched a new legal advocacy hub focused specifically on challenging industrial agriculture. Called FarmSTAND, the project will drive (and engage volunteer attorneys) in litigation against food and farm corporations on issues including pollution and exploitation “FarmSTAND understands the essential role of people power and grassroots community organizing in creating progressive social change. We’re excited to work with them to fight back against corporate power and fight for a farm and food system that’s good for family farmers, workers, eaters and the environment,” said Hugh Espey, community organizer and strategic adviser for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, in a press release.

Read More:
Inside the Rural Resistance to CAFOs
Animal Agriculture Is Dangerous Work. The People Who Do It Have Few Protections

Proposed Policy Changes to Protect Farmworkers. With Biden currently in the hot seat for his administration’s approach to immigration, three different agencies announced efforts they say will improve working conditions for people who travel to the U.S. temporarily to work on farms. The Department of Labor, Department of Homeland Security, and USDA all proposed updates to the H-2A program, which has long been rife with exploitation of workers and has ballooned in size in recent years as farmers struggled to find workers already in the U.S. At the USDA, a pilot program will offer $65 million in grants to farms, agricultural associations, and H-2A labor contractors who want to hire workers and are willing to adopt varied levels of improved working conditions. All participating employers, for example, will have to allow partner groups to offer an in-person workshop on worker rights and resources. At higher levels of funding, requirements include providing overtime pay even when state law does not require it, or signing on to collective bargaining agreements.

Read more:
The H-2A Guest Worker Program Has Ballooned in Size, but Both Farmers and Workers Want It Fixed
Congress Killed a Bill to Give Farmworkers a Path to Citizenship. What Comes Next?

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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  1. Joe Herrero
    If you could have a attached letter readers could sign on to send to congress to make our voice heard. They only understand votes or money

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