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USDA Rescinds Proposed Organic Animal-Welfare Rules; Small Producers Seek New Label

U.S. Department of Agriculture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture tossed out a set of proposed changes this week that would have redefined living conditions for dairy and beef cattle, sheep, lamb, poultry and egg-laying chickens on certified organic farms.

Credit U.S. Department of Agriculture

Small organic farmers say they’re forced to compete with larger operations on an uneven playing field. And already, the Trump administration’s decision has pushed a group of smaller organic farmers to create their own organic label.

Te proposed rules, called the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices, required organic farms to give animals, in particular chickens, more space and access to the outdoors. The rules also would have banned certain practices, such as debeaking birds and tail docking (i.e. shortening an animal’s tail).  

After 14 years of developing the regulations, the USDA said it doesn’t have the authority to enforce them; the changes were set to take effect in May.

In a 2017 report, the USDA estimates that up to half of U.S. organic egg producers would have dropped their certification due to the proposed regulations. That would have translated into fewer organic eggs, the USDA says, and cost consumers about $1.50 more a dozen.

Small organic farmers already can’t compete with larger operations who only meet the minimum requirements for organic, according to Francis Thicke, a small organic dairy farmer in Iowa.

Thicke, who also is a former member of the National Organic Standards Board, says his cows graze on pasture and have a diet of 85 percent grass, far beyond the USDA’s certified organic standard of 30 percent.

“It’s very unfair, I think, for small to midsize dairy farmers, who are meeting the spirit and letter of the law, are being forced out of the market,” Thicke says.  

He added that he’s part of a group of farmers who want to create a separate label aside from the official USDA organic one to reflect producers’ commitment to the treatment of animals.  Under the label, farmers would follow higher standards, including more grazing space for dairy cows and outdoors space for poultry.  

Large organic egg producer Cal-Maine Foods, based in Jackson, Mississippi, opposed the regulations. During the 2016 public comment period, Vice President Timothy Thompson wrote they would have caused economic issues across the organic supply chain, and in particular for organic egg producers. The USDA report also acknowledged producers would need to do things like buy more land.

“The proposed rule if implemented could create significant economic, animal health and consumer food safety concerns,” Thompson said.

Cal-Maine Foods did not respond to a request for comment on this article.  

The organic rule withdrawal is similar to a USDA decision in October, when the agency rescinded proposals that were set in motion at the end of the Obama administration regarding small livestock producers.

Follow Esther on Twitter: @estherhonig

Copyright 2018 Harvest Public Media

As a reporter for Harvest Public Media, I travel throughout northern Colorado, and parts of Wyoming and Nebraska to cover agriculture and rural issues.