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Organic industry ups challenge on USDA rule withdrawal

Animal welfare groups join organic industry challenge over withdrawal of organic livestock production standards rule.

The Organic Trade Assn. (OTA) this week ratcheted up its court battle against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over the agency’s failure to put new organic livestock standards into effect, with two animal welfare groups joining the association in its ongoing legal fight to uphold the integrity of organic standards.

In a new filing that revised the original complaint against USDA to reflect the department’s move to withdraw the rule, OTA was joined by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) and the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) as co-plaintiffs in the suit.

On March 13, USDA announced its intention to withdraw the final regulation on May 13, contending that the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) gives the National Organic Program the authority to regulate only veterinary medications, not animal care, welfare or production standards.

OTA’s amended complaint -- filed on Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia -- argues that this new claim by USDA is a “novel and erroneous” view of OFPA that “conflicts with every prior administration’s approach to rule-making under the OFPA and the National Organic Standards Board.”

“We welcome the critical support of our friends in the animal welfare community in standing up against the Administration’s attack on this important organic standard,” OTA chief executive officer and executive director Laura Batcha said. “In USDA’s attempt to kill this fully vetted final regulation, they’ve taken a radical departure from conclusions reached over more than 20 years of rule-makings regarding organic livestock care and have assumed an aberrant view that has no historical basis or legal justification."

OTA is also challenging USDA’s assertion that it does not have to consult with the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) -- the advisory board to the National Organic Program established by OFPA – before withdrawing the regulation.

“The organic standard-making process established by Congress requires consultation with the National Organic Standards Board to make or amend existing organic standards,” Batcha said. “The day the Organic Livestock & Poultry Practices final regulation was published, it became the regulation of the National Organic Program. Withdrawal of this regulation requires NOSB’s consultation and review.”

OTA claims that USDA continues to flagrantly disregard and refuse to consider the overwhelming support from the public for the organic animal welfare rule.

“USDA knows the public overwhelmingly supports the implementation of the Organic Livestock & Poultry Practices regulation,” Batcha said. "Indeed, in its announcement to withdraw the rule, USDA noted that out of the 72,000 comments it received, over 63,000 opposed the withdrawal of the final rule, and only 50 supported its withdrawal, but despite the clear evidence of the public sentiment, USDA is acting against the will of the public and the will of the organic sector."

The Organic Livestock & Poultry Practices final rule was published on Jan. 19, 2017, after more than a decade of extensive public input and a thorough vetting process. The regulation addresses four broad areas of organic livestock and poultry practices: living conditions, animal health care, transport and slaughter. Most important, it ends the ability to use “porches” in organic poultry production and requires producers to give their poultry access to the outdoors.

Before the final withdrawal, the government had attempted six times – either through the rule-making process or through court filings -- to delay the implementation of the rule.

OTA filed its lawsuit against USDA last September over the department’s delays in the implementation of the Organic Livestock & Poultry Practices regulation. The lawsuit argues that USDA violated the Organic Foods Production Act by failing to consult with NOSB on the rollback of the final organic standard and unlawfully delayed the effective date of the final livestock standards developed by industry and in accordance with the established rule-making processes. The suit also argues that USDA issued its repeated delays without the required public process and that USDA ignored the overwhelming public record established in support of these organic standards. Those arguments still stand.

Since the filing of the lawsuit, support for the legal action against USDA has grown. A host of organic stakeholders representing thousands of organic farming families, organic certifiers and organic policy-makers – along with leading retail brands and groups speaking out for millions of consumers -- have supported the suit as declarants harmed by the USDA action.

In addition to the lawsuit’s co-plaintiffs, The Humane Society of the United States filed a separate lawsuit on Jan. 12 against USDA for withdrawing the regulation.

“Support for our lawsuit is rapidly growing,” Batcha said. “Being organic is a choice, and all of our organic stakeholders – from farmers to retailers – work hard every day to voluntarily abide by organic standards. They want clear, consistent standards. Consumers want clear, consistent organic standards. We call upon the government to act responsibly as the steward of our federal organic program. That is what the organic community wants, what consumers expect and what the law mandates.”

Erin Thompson, staff attorney for the AWI farm animal program, said, “AWI was gravely disappointed by the department’s withdrawal of the (organic practices) rule because it had been widely praised by animal advocates, consumer protection groups and the vast majority of the organic livestock industry. Despite broad support and decades of work spent advancing the rule through the National Organic Standards Board and the rule-making process, the department issued an arbitrary reversal that undermines the mandate of the Organic Foods Production Act.”

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