Implement organic animal welfare rule

Paul Lewis, Ph.D.
Director, Standards Division
National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-NOP
1400 Independence Ave. SW, Room 2642-So. Ag Stop 0268
Washington, DC 20250-0268

Docket AMS-NOP-15-0012NOP-15-06

 

Dear Mr. Lewis,

Thank you for the opportunity to comment on USDA’s proposed withdrawal of the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule. PCC Community Markets is a retail grocer earning $280 million in annual sales through our 10 stores in six cities of Washington state. We are the largest consumer-owned grocer in the United States and also a certified organic retailer.

We strongly oppose USDA’s proposal to withdrawal the OLPP final rule. A decade of work by stakeholders across the industry went into crafting this rule that has earned broad industry support. It is entirely within the scope of the Organic Food Production Act’s (OFPA) mandate and it would be wrong to withdraw it.

We see USDA’s arguments in the Federal Register for withdrawing the OLPP rule and offer our market experience, below, to encourage USDA to understand why withdrawing the rule would worsen market and consumer confusion about what the organic label means. Our experience indicates that withdrawing the rule likely would increase market migration away from the organic seal.

USDA asks for comments on its “belief” that the OFPA “does not authorize the animal welfare provisions of the OLPP final rule …” and that USDA’s interpretation “suggests OFPA’s reference ‘for the care’ of organically produced livestock should be limited to health care practices similar to those specified by Congress in the statute.” We see that “USDA believes the threshold question is whether Congress has authorized the proposed action.”

These arguments — and USDA’s citation of 7 U.S.C. §6509 as the relevant authority for OFPA-related regulations for animal production practices — ignore the very broad scope of the Congressional mandate in OFPA itself for what “health care practices” encompass.

OFPA §205.238 states that organic livestock “health care practice standards” include appropriate housing, pasture conditions, conditions that allow for exercise, freedom of movement, reduction of stress appropriate to the species, and physical alterations as needed to promote the animal’s welfare and to minimize pain and stress. These provisions are not noted at all in 7 U.S.C. §6509 but they are in the OFPA statute by Congressional mandate. There is no doubt Congress authorized the intent and purpose of the OLPP.

We also see that USDA asks for comments on its perception that “the present regulatory regime is meeting statutory objectives of reassuring consumers of organic integrity and facilitating interstate commerce.” We see USDA cites 12.7 percent annual growth in the organic egg market from 2007 to 2016 as a show of consumer confidence in products produced under current standards.

That citation on annual growth considers only half the reality. It is correct that consumers are buying more certified organic foods, but USDA is not considering the increasing shift to an even higher bar — to products exceeding USDA organic minimums.

For instance, market demand for eggs and poultry from birds raised on pasture — exceeding National Organic Program (NOP) standards — has grown rapidly over the past 10 years. A decade ago, we had little or no demand for eggs from pastured hens. Now, a third of the eggs sold in our stores are from pastured birds — organic or not — and the shift to pastured products is increasing, even when they cost more than organic products.

We understand from customers that this largely is because the current organic rule does not clearly define ‘outdoor access,’ a loophole that has enabled some producers to skirt the intent and mislead customers. The result is that organic eggs and organic chicken broilers sometimes are passed over when pastured options are available — organic or not. Shoppers want eggs and poultry raised not only on organic feed but also with real outdoor access, ample space to move around, and protection from unnecessary physical mutilations. These trends indicate the USDA NOP is not keeping up with consumer expectations and market demands.

As one shopper wrote: “The term ‘organic’ ensures that hens’ feed is not treated with pesticides. It is no guarantee of the hens’ living conditions. Organic is good to look for but we should investigate the actual conditions behind the words before we are lulled into a false sense of complacency.”

Retailers need a consistent standard that’s enforceable to avoid consumer and market confusion and deception. The OLPP rule is mandated by Congress and fills the voids in current rules to meet market demands.

We also see USDA seeks comment on its argument that the OLPP’s “prescriptive codification of current industry practices … could have the unintended consequence of preventing or stunting future market-based innovation …” and that “overly prescriptive regulation can discourage technological and social innovation, especially by small firms …” and that, “lacking evidence of the material market failure to justify prescriptive regulatory action, AMS is concerned the OLPP rule may hamper market-driven innovation and evolution and impose unnecessary regulatory burdens.”

This line of argument by USDA is speculative and fails to consider the evidence in market trends and data offered above. The lack of clarity in the current rule has enabled unequal interpretation by different certifiers, enabling abuse by some producers, and confusing and misleading customers about what the organic label ensures. The lack of clarity has been a disincentive for innovation and has stunted innovation. The lack of clarity in the current law hurts conscientious small farmers and producers most of all.

Organic family farmers across the nation who treat their animals well and want to market their products under a strong and credible organic label have testified that withdrawing the rule would cripple their ability to compete fairly. Withdrawal would exacerbate the hollowing out of rural communities and allow some unscrupulous farmers to use deficient practices and yet deceive the public by selling products at a premium.

The trend to pastured and certified humane poultry — organic or not — reveals the need for more prescriptive language to retain value in organic certification, the opposite of USDA’s allegation that there is “a lack of evidence” to justify “overly prescriptive regulation.”

As a consumer-owned grocery chain with more than 58,000 active member-owners, we see ample evidence that USDA’s proposed withdrawal of the OLPP is an assault against a clear, consistent standard and would encourage market confusion and customer deception. The entire organic sector would be impacted negatively if this rule is withdrawn.

We urge immediate implementation of the final Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule without revision.

Submitted respectfully,

Trudy Bialic
Director, Public Affairs & Quality Standards

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