USDA Sued for Killing New Rules for Organic Livestock

Chickens enjoying the freedom of a grassy field.

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The Trump administration’s dismantling of new rules for organic livestock could lead to more regulatory rollbacks and undermine confidence in the organic label, four public interest groups claim in a new lawsuit.

Lead plaintiff Center for Environmental Health sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture late Wednesday over its decision earlier this month to terminate new organic livestock standards.

The organic livestock rule, finalized on the last day of Barack Obama’s presidency, was set to take effect in May 2017. The new rule would create higher standards for the handling, transport, and slaughter of organic-certified livestock. One key feature is a requirement that egg-laying hens be given access to outdoor space.

“It’s the Trump administration caving to a small handful of large egg producers who didn’t want to change their operations to meet high standards,” said Amy Van Saun, a lawyer with the Center for Food Safety in Portland, Oregon.

After repeatedly delaying the new standards, the USDA killed the rule on March 12. The department says it lacks authority to regulate animal welfare for certified organics and that compliance costs would outweigh any benefits.

The plaintiffs say those justifications contradict the USDA’s prior findings and more than two decades of USDA interpretation of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990.

“It’s a total reversal, a 180-degree flip from the USDA’s interpretation of its authority for the last 28 years since organic was created as a national standard,” Van Saun said.

In a statement issued March 12, USDA Undersecretary Greg Ibach said the new rule is unnecessary because existing livestock and poultry regulations are effective.

“The organic industry’s continued growth domestically and globally shows that consumers trust the current approach that balances consumer expectations and the needs of organic producers and handlers,” Ibach said.

Of the 72,000 comments received on its proposal to withdraw the rule, only 50 commenters supported killing the new standards. More than 63,000 comments, over 87.5 percent, opposed withdrawing the rule. Another 7,800 stated no clear opinion, according to the USDA.

A 2014 study commissioned by the USDA found compliance costs for the new rule negligible because most egg producers already adhered to the proposed standards.

Withdrawing the rule means a handful of egg producers who deny hens outdoor access can continue to label their eggs organic and unfairly compete with those who follow higher standards, Van Saun said.

“It’s important to level the playing field,” she said.

The USDA claims previously cited benefits of the rule were “overstated” and that the new regulations would increase the price of organic eggs by $1.25 per dozen.

While Van Saun disagrees with the USDA’s new cost-benefit calculations, she finds its new interpretation of the law more troubling. That’s because the agency could use its new interpretation of the law to rescind previously enacted rules, such as the “Access to Pasture” rule for cows passed in 2010.

The USDA “has broad discretion to reconsider a regulation at any time,” the agency stated in its 9-page rule withdrawing the organic livestock standards on March 12.

The plaintiffs say the USDA also failed to consult with the National Organic Standards Board, which recommended the new regulations, before it terminated the rule. The National Organic Foods Production Act requires the USDA to consult the board on organic standard decisions.

But the USDA claims it has no duty to consult with the board “at every phase of the rulemaking process.”

The nonprofits want a federal judge to nullify the USDA’s March 12 withdrawal rule and reinstate the previously stalled standards for organic livestock.

Other named plaintiffs in the lawsuit include Center for Food Safety, Cultivate Oregon, and International Technology Assessment.

USDA spokeswoman Amanda Heitkamp declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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