Several main messages were expressed by livestock industry group representatives who testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday. Among those was the need for Congress to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), encourage the U.S. Department of Agriculture to do a better economic analysis of its organic animal welfare standards rule and prevent USDA from moving forward on its Grain Inspection, Packers & Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) proposal.
The Senate hearing follows on the heels of a House hearing earlier this week that focused on many of the same issues. However, the issue of the organic animal welfare standards was more thoroughly discussed as Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) has been outspoken about his concerns regarding the outside space requirements proposed in USDA’s rule.
Ron Truex, president and general manager of Creighton Brothers LLC in Warsaw, Ind., and chairman of the United Egg Producers (UEP), testified that egg operations comprising nearly 70-80% of the organic eggs currently marketed would be required to make significant changes in order to meet the standards USDA has proposed.
UEP estimates that the economic impact of the proposed organic welfare standards rule would be “well in excess of $100 million, if not more,” Truex said. It will be impossible to meet the requirement for more outdoor space while banning porches without producers making new land purchases. He said producers have made significant investments in recent years to help meet increased demand for organic eggs. Truex said the rule could result in reduced supplies and higher prices for consumers.
The porch systems also help the commercial poultry avoid contact with wild birds that carry disease. John Zimmerman, a turkey farmer from Northfield, Minn., testifying on behalf of the National Turkey Federation, said coming off the massive avian influenza outbreak last year, the organic standards rule proposed by USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service “flies in the face of everything we’re doing" with the Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service to keep birds inside to protect them from avian influenza.
The groups thanked Roberts for his letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding concerns with the rule and also asked Congress to press USDA to do a more thorough assessment of the compliance costs, increased animal health and welfare risks and alternatives for existing organic growers in order to minimize the impact to producers and supply chains directly affected by these changes.
The livestock groups also called for meat products to be exempt from any food labeling requirements related to agricultural biotechnology, regardless of if the animals had been fed genetically engineered (GE) feed. It was clear from exchanges between Roberts and his committee's ranking member, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.), that a solution on the GE labeling debate that can get the needed 60 votes in the Senate remains elusive.
There would be some interesting challenges with the framework for a meat exemption because, for example, different soups could be labeled differently if one has beef in it and another doesn’t.
All industry sectors voiced support for passage of TPP. Dr. Howard Hill, testifying on behalf of the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC), reiterated that more pork is exported to the 20 countries with which the U.S. has free trade agreements than in the rest of the world combined.
Hill did note that rather than spending time and resources on TPP passage, those have had to be diverted to fight back against USDA’s announcement to move forward with its “GIPSA rule.” He noted that if the proposed rule to GIPSA mirrors what was originally proposed in 2010, it will “wipe out any benefits gained from TPP.”
“The livestock industry will be fundamentally and negatively changed, and the increased exports and jobs created from TPP will be negated” if the GIPSA rule is implemented, said Hill, a pork producer, veterinarian and NPPC past president.