Reinstate organic livestock rule, OTA asks judge

Warning that organic egg farmers face unfair competition daily, the Organic Trade Association asked a federal judge to order the USDA to reinstate a 2017 regulation setting welfare standards for organic livestock. The 2017 regulation said enclosed porches, used by some egg producers, do not satisfy the organic agriculture requirement to provide daily access to the outdoors for livestock.

“We need a legal ruling,” said OTA chief executive Laura Batcha on Monday, notwithstanding a change in heart at the USDA. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has ordered a re-examination of the Trump-era withdrawal of the 2017 regulation. “While we welcome Secretary Vilsack’s statement last week,” said Batcha, “the policy statement doesn’t guarantee a swift end to this harm.”

The USDA has 30 days to respond to the OTA motion, filed on Friday, for U.S. district judge Paul Friedman to issue an immediate decision in the four-year-old case.

If the USDA follows the course laid out by Vilsack, it would ask Friedman in the next few weeks to return the 2017 regulation to its hands for review. Last week, Vilsack said a new livestock rule could be drafted within six to nine months “from the date of the remand.” It would address the Trump administration decision that it had no power to implement the animal welfare rule, despite spending a decade in writing the regulation. The new rule also would disallow porches as outdoor access for poultry and it would cover other topics that were part of the original humane treatment rule.

Porches are a divisive issue that splits smaller organic producers and large-scale organic farms that have tens of thousands of birds who mostly live indoors. In a 2020 report, the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute said “the vast majority of organic chicken for sale in the United States comes from industrial-scale producers.” Cornucopia said ethical producers “focus on legitimate outdoor access and high welfare for their birds.”

Batcha said organic egg farmers “who are doing the right thing to give their poultry real outdoor access and raise their animals according to the highest standards are continuing to be exposed to economic harm from unfair competition every day that the Trump administration’s rescission of the organic animal welfare rule is allowed to stay in place.”

Issued on President Obama’s last day in office, the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices regulation said organic farmers must provide outdoor access for their animals on all but the hottest and coldest days. It would have effectively ended the practice of confining egg-laying hens in small “battery cages” and would have required group housing of hogs. Those standards would have drawn a sharp contrast to large-scale conventional farms, which use battery cages, so-called sow crates, and veal calf stalls that closely confine food-bearing animals in the name of efficiency and labor savings but are viewed as inhumane by animal rights groups and supportive consumers.

The rule was halted by a regulatory freeze by the incoming Trump administration, and delayed again until the USDA said it lacked authority on the matter and withdrew the rule in 2018.

For a 2017 USDA fact sheet on the organic livestock rule, click here.