The Organic Trade Assn. (OTA) filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the U.S. Department of Agriculture over what it claimed is the agency's failure to put into effect new organic livestock standards.
The Organic Livestock & Poultry Production rule, commonly referred to as the Organic Animal Welfare Rule, addresses four broad areas of organic livestock and poultry practices, including the living conditions, health care, transport and slaughter of animals. The rule establishes minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry and clarifies how producers and handlers must treat livestock and chickens throughout their life, including during transport and slaughter.
The suit alleges that USDA violated the Organic Foods Production Act and unlawfully delayed the effective date of the final livestock standards developed by the industry in accordance with the processes established by Congress and abused the agency’s discretion by “ignoring the overwhelming public record established in support of these organic standards,” OTA said.
OTA asked the court to reverse decisions to delay and eliminate options proposed by USDA to further delay, rewrite or permanently shelve the rule, thereby making the final livestock rule effective immediately, as written.
“We are standing up on behalf of the entire organic sector to protect organic integrity, advance animal welfare and demand the government keep up with the industry and the consumer in setting organic standards,” said Laura Batcha, OTA executive director and chief executive officer.
More than 47,000 comments were received during the 30-day comment period, with 99% of those comments in support of the rule becoming effective as written -- without further delay -- on Nov. 14, 2017, OTA said.
“Organic regulations apply only to certified organic producers, and those organic producers are overwhelmingly in favor of this new regulation. Most of the criticism of the new organic animal welfare rule has come from outside the sector and by special-interest groups not impacted by the regulation but that would like to override the will of our members,” Batch noted.
The United Egg Producers, National Pork Producers Council and National Cattlemen’s Beef Board were opposed to the rule and asked for its full withdrawal.
The National Organic Program released the final rule on Organic Livestock & Poultry Practices on Jan. 19, 2017, and published it in the Federal Register on the last official day of the Obama Administration. Due to a White House memorandum to federal agencies released on Jan. 20, 2017, requesting a regulatory freeze on rules recently published or pending, the effective date of the rule was delayed to May 19, 2017.
OTA further contends that the Trump Administration’s regulatory freeze order should not apply to organic standards because they are voluntary and are required only of those farms and businesses that opt in to be certified organic.
On May 10, 2017, USDA delayed the effective date of the rule by an additional six months to Nov. 14, 2017, and opened a 30-day comment period asking for responses to four possible options for the final rule, including: letting it become effective on Nov. 14, 2017; suspending the rule indefinitely, which USDA would consider whether to implement, modify or withdraw the final rule; delaying the effective date further or withdrawing the rule.
The lawsuit alleges that USDA has violated the Administrative Procedure Act because the delays were issued without any public process and by proposing action to indefinitely delay or kill the rule.
The organic industry has been fighting for this rule for years, said Jesse Laflamme, owner and CEO of Pete & Gerry’s Organics, an organic egg producer. “Certified organic egg, dairy and animal producers hold their operations to a higher standard of animal welfare than is required, because it is the right thing to do, and it is what our customers expect," Laflamme said. "The organic industry works hard to live up to the expectation of its consumers, and we expect the USDA to live up to its mandate to oversee the industry in a way that is fair and will enable us to continue to prosper.”
George Siemon, CEO of organic farmer cooperative Organic Valley, said the government’s failure to allow this regulation to be implemented could jeopardize consumer trust in organic products.
“The organic consumer and community have worked closely with USDA to help craft this sound regulation and have followed the established rule-making process. For the Administration to now let political pressure derail that progress is an assault on the trust in the organic process that the organic industry works so hard every day to earn,” Siemon said. “Organic Valley works with thousands of organic dairy, laying hen, beef, hog and poultry producers and has long advocated for action to clarify the living conditions and expectations for animal care in organic. Animal living conditions and welfare are a critical part of an organic livestock system. We, in organic, need to lead on this front, and the consumer’s trust in organic needs to be respected.”