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Inside Washington: Organic livestock standards 'ridiculous'

Outdoor access requirements and trying to "entice" birds outside makes one wonder how larger operations can comply.

It has been a couple of weeks since the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) released its proposal for organic livestock standards. It has been years in the making, dating back to 2011, and it appears that it could pit those who have chosen organics as a business against the so-called “pure organics.”

One of the biggest changes in the poultry side of the rule pertains to the outside access requirements laid out in the proposal. Specifically, the rule states, “Outside access and door spacing must be designed to promote and encourage outside access for all birds on a daily basis. Producers must provide access to the outdoors at an early age to encourage (train) birds to go outdoors. Outdoor areas must have suitable enrichment to entice birds to go outside.”

This week, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) had less than kind words about how UDSA is calling for producers to “entice” birds to go outside, questioning what is considered chicken enrichment anyway. “It might be yoga, video games, sports, a gourmet meal or maybe even a strolling violin,” he quipped.

Roberts is leading a bipartisan effort to garner support for a letter to USDA asking for a more commonsense rule. He noted that some of the wording tries to appeal to those “pure organic folks,” which Roberts said he doesn’t think is necessary.

The rule also states that space with a solid roof overhead and attached to the structure providing indoor space does not meet the definition of outdoor access and must not be included in the calculation of outdoor space. Also, at least 50% of outdoor access space must be soil.

Outdoor access is integral to organic production, and consumers expect that it is standard practice throughout the organic egg sector. However, outdoor access is not mandatory for all third-party animal welfare certification programs. This is why AMS said it is proposing to set outdoor stocking densities for poultry and to clarify whether porches are acceptable for outdoor access.

AMS did not estimate the potential cost to implement this proposed requirement due to wide variability in the site-specific conditions. AMS said it does make assumptions about whether producers have the adequate land base to accommodate the outdoor stocking density. However, even producers who have the adequate land base may need to modify that area (e.g, install fencing) to provide access to the soil.

In its analysis of the rule, AMS said the outdoor space is the key constraint that drives the costs of complying with the proposed rule. AMS postulates that a producer will consider two options in response to this proposed rule: (1) comply with the proposed rule and remain in the organic egg market, or (2) transition to the cage-free egg market.

AMS expects the marginal cost to produce 1 doz. eggs to increase under the proposed rule for each type of housing system except pasture. AMS estimates that the marginal costs to produce 1 doz. eggs will increase 2.8% for floor litter and slatted/mesh floor housing and 3.3% for aviary systems.

Some major organic players are seeking an extension on the rule’s comment period, which currently closes June 13. They are seeking inclusion of more accurate information to account for a more precise understanding of how the industry has progressed. It is speculated that the department will try to finalize the rule before the next Administration enters, which could make it more challenging to provide time for any changes.

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