“In another poke in the eye to agriculture, the Obama administration is set to issue a regulation that adds animal welfare standards to the nation’s organic food production law,” the National Pork Producers Council said in a recent news release. The association will work with the Trump administration and Congress to repeal what they consider to be yet another “midnight” regulation.

According to NPPC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s amendment to the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 would “set strict guidelines on how organic producers must raise livestock and poultry, including during transport and slaughter, and specify, without scientific justification, which common practices are allowed and prohibited in organic livestock and poultry production, thereby eliminating producers’ discretion to make sound decisions about animal care,” the release stated. “It also would establish unreasonable indoor and outdoor space requirements for animals. The regulation was cleared by the Office of Management and Budget last week; the last step before becoming final.

The USDA states the total U.S. retail market for organic products is valued at more than $39 billion. The department has “strengthened programs that support organic operations over the past seven years, helping to make organic certification more accessible, attainable, and affordable through a ‘Sound and Sensible’ approach,” according to USDA. “This initiative includes streamlining the certification process, focusing on enforcement and working with farmers and processors to correct small issues before they become larger ones.”

On one hand, USDA says it is strengthening certification: Its fact sheets state, “All products that are sold, labeled, or represented as organic must meet all requirements in the USDA organic regulations. Products must be certified organic by a USDA-accredited certifying agent. The USDA organic regulations ensure that organically labeled products meet consistent national standards.”
Then, it essentially weakens that language by making “operations whose gross agricultural income from organic sales is less than $5,000” exempt. These smaller operations do not need to be certified in order to sell, label, or represent their products as organic, which appears to be in direct contrast to “strengthening certification.”

These operations also do not need to prepare an organic systems plan, but they may use the word “organic” on their products.

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

“This is precisely the type of executive branch overreach that Congress will reign in through regulatory reform,” Weber said.

NPPC stated its opposition to the regulation in a written statement last summer, in which it said the welfare standards are “not based on science and are outside the scope of the organic food production law, which limits consideration of livestock as organic to feeding and medication practices.” Additionally, the organization pointed out, animal welfare is not unique to organic production.

“Animal production practices have nothing to do with the concept of ‘organic,’” Weber said. “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.

NPPC feels the standards are “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.

The organization pointed out that livestock industry-driven animal care and handling standards already exist and that such programs can more rapidly accommodate new practices and procedures that promote animal health and welfare than a federal regulation can. Many of the programs already are available to organic producers.