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Daily News Blog

16
Mar

USDA Continues Attack on Integrity of Organic Food Label, Sparks Alternative Add-On Labels

(Beyond Pesticides, March 16, 2018) In a pattern of U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) actions that hurt the integrity of the organic label on food products, the agency has decided to withdraw final organic animal welfare regulations that would have provided standardized and measurable criteria for managing the health and welfare of organic livestock and poultry. USDA’s latest decision is another in a series of actions aimed at lowering the bar of organic integrity in order to serve the needs of large organic producers. In November of 2017, the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), backed by the National Organic Program (NOP), rolled back decades of agreement that organic agriculture is soil-dependent, by allowing soil-less hydroponic operations to be certified organic. This has sparked stakeholders to collaborate on the development of an add-on label to certified organic food, with standards that meet the intent and letter of organic law.

Despite widespread stakeholder disagreement and evidence to the contrary, USDA has concluded that the organic animal husbandry practice standards do not need to be improved  because existing regulations are “robust” and “effective,” despite widespread stakeholder disagreement. USDA justified withdrawing the regulations, by stating that they could “have a negative effect on participation in the National Organic Program.”

Consensus on key elements in the Organic Livestock and Poultry Production (OLPP) final rule emerged after decades of horse trading between farmers, organic food producers, public interest organizations, retailers, the public and NOP. While not everyone agreed on all aspects, there was widespread agreement that the adoption of a baseline rule was long overdue. After five rewrites, stakeholders were able to overlook their differences, agree to disagree and unite in their call for the establishment of basic regulations. Their goal was to codify the strong animal welfare practices required by organic dairy, meat, poultry and egg producers in order to protect animal health and wellbeing and to maintain consumer confidence in these organic markets.

Investigative research into organic CAFO-like livestock feedlots and hen houses have underscored the urgency for USDA to take action to remedy transgressions in organic poultry and livestock management. In its expose “Scrambled Eggs” Cornucopia reveals how large organic poultry producers pack flocks of 150,000 hens or more into overcrowded, dimly lit warehouses. Photos show that such facilities lack pasture and access to the outdoors which inhibits the hens’ natural behavior of pecking, scratching and rooting in the soil. Some large producers skirt the outdoor access requirements by providing concrete slabs with no natural vegetation.  Others have a few doors at their facility that are so small that outdoor access is not possible for most birds in the flock. For these reasons and many others, organic stakeholders have been pushing for the adoption of organic animal welfare rules since the passage of the Organic Foods Production Act (OFPA) in 1990.

In response to USDA’s notice to withdraw the final rule, a broad base of stakeholders rallied in January 2018 to support the adoption of the OLPP. An overwhelming majority of 63,000 out of 72,000 comments sent to USDA supported the rule. Only 50 commenters opposed it, primarily big Ag such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council. They argued, with little understanding of organic consumer expectations, that animal welfare has nothing to do with organic. In contrast, OLPP rule advocates stressed the essentiality of the rule in preventing animal cruelty by ensuring universal compliance with mandatory, standardized organic animal welfare practices and prohibitions. The regulations would have established minimum requirements for critical welfare management practices such as stocking densities for organic chickens inside and outside, their access to the outdoors and vegetation, and humane transport and slaughter conditions for livestock and poultry.

Congressional Representatives Peter DeFazio, Rosa DeLauro, Ron Kind and Chellie Pingree have also long-championed the need for explicit animal welfare regulations. In a strongly worded press release, they expressed their “extreme disappointment” with USDA’s regulation grab and chastised the agency for basing its decision on “false contentions including the fact that it would hurt participation in the NOP.” By withdrawing the final rule, they argue that “USDA has ignored both the public and organic industry stakeholders. Without clear standards from USDA, we are worried businesses in our Districts will suffer as consumers lose confidence in the organic label.”

In an earlier attack on organic integrity, in 2016, without public input, the NOP reversed the process by which synthetics are allowed in organic – from cycling them out of organic production every five years to now retaining them indefinitely, unless a successful appeal is made to disallow them. Illegal, cheap organic grain imports are on the rise while USDA does little to increase its inspection and enforcement efforts. This inaction hurts U.S. organic grain growers and decreases their ability to remain competitive.

These increasing organic rollbacks, many of which threaten to break the backbone of organic, have inspired the creation of two organic-plus labels, complete with their own inspection and certification systems. Both the Real Organic Project and Regenerative Organic Certification plan to use USDA’s organic certification as the foundation of their labels and then add-on crucial organic provisions that have been revoked or not yet addressed by USDA. Soilless production systems do not qualify for either program and animal welfare provisions will provide a cornerstone for both labels. While still in various stages of development, the labels are also considering the addition of some fair trade and social justice provisions, which many feel are sorely lacking in USDA’s organic regulations.

Now more than ever we need your help in Keeping Organic Strong. Comments to the NOSB, the stakeholder advisory Board to USDA on all matters organic, are due on April 4th. Check out Beyond Pesticides’ website to read our submissions to the NOSB, which will be posted over the course of the next week. Feel free to borrow liberally from them to help you draft comments on those organic issues most important to you.

Sources:  Beyond Pesticides; Civil Eats; Organic Advocacy

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