USDA updates organic livestock and poultry rules

Meat & Poultry, Jan. 19, 2017 - by Bob Sims

WASHINGTON – The US Dept. of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has announced a final rule that clarifies production requirements for organic livestock and poultry. According to a statement from AMS, the final rule bolsters consumer confidence, levels the playing field for producers and ensures organic animals will live in pasture-based systems and are produced in environments supporting their well- being and natural behavior.

The final rule, which can be viewed at www.regulations.gov or www.ams.usda.gov, supports the goal of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA). The goal instructs USDA to develop regulations to ensure organic products meet consistent standards that include livestock and poultry production, AMS said in its statement.

“During this Administration, USDA’s support for the organic sector has grown along with the demand for organically produced products,” said AMS Administrator Elanor Starmer.  “To build on this support, it has been a top priority to strengthen standards for organic livestock and poultry, ensuring that we meet consumer expectations and maintain the integrity of the USDA organic seal. This rule is also about fairness for organic producers – it ensures that everyone competes on a level field and plays by the same rules.”

Recommendations from the National Organic Standards Board, public comments from a range of stakeholders and consultation from other Federal agencies were used to craft the amendments. Important provisions of the rule include:

• Clarifying how producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and well-being throughout life, including transport and slaughter.

• Specifying which physical alterations are allowed and prohibited in organic livestock and poultry production.

• Establishing minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry.

In a statement to MEAT+POULTRY, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) said it applauded USDA for working to improve the welfare of animals raised under the certified organic label.

“This is a historic moment, as there are currently no substantive federal standards for the raising of farm animals under the law,” said Dena Jones, AWI farm animal program director. “The final rule reduces inconsistencies in the animal care provided by organic producers, and helps farmers who raise their animals in accordance with higher welfare standards. Such farmers – whose practices are more in line with consumer expectations for organic products – are currently at a competitive disadvantage to industrial operators who cut corners and treat their animals poorly.”

Jones went on to say that the rule falls short in some areas. “It does not, for instance, ‘ensure … that all organic animals live in pasture-based systems,’ as the USDA claims.

“…While the final rule does not create a pasture-based system, it does ensure that all organically raised animals at least have some access to the outdoors—a significant improvement from the current organic regulatory requirements.”

In contrast to AWI, The National Pork Producers Council (NPPC) did not appreciate the final rule from USDA’s AMS. NPPC said in a statement the new rule dictates how organic producers raise, transport and slaughter animals without scientific justification and eliminates producers from making sound decisions with regard to animal care.

“This parting gift from Agriculture Secretary [Tom] Vilsack is not welcomed,” said NPPC President John Weber, a pork producer from Dysart, Iowa. “This unnecessary, unscientific midnight regulation won’t win him any friends in the agriculture community he’s apparently joining. (Vilsack is expected to take over the Dairy Export Council.)

NPPC says welfare standards do not fall within the scope of the organic food production law, thus limiting consideration of livestock as organic to feeding and medication practices.

“…These new standards will present serious challenges to livestock producers and add complexity to the organic certification process, creating significant barriers to existing and new organic producers.

“The standards seem to be based on public perception – or USDA’s understanding of that perception – of what good animal welfare is and don’t reflect a consensus by experts in animal welfare and handling,” he added. “The inclusion of animal welfare requirements into the organic food production law is no different than requiring that all farmers wear bib overalls or paint their barns red in deference to public sentiment.”