On March 12, 2018, the USDA announced its decision to withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule that was published on January 19, 2017.
As previously discussed, the OLPP was essentially an animal welfare rule, establishing minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for chickens based on the type of production and the stage of life, and adding new provisions for livestock handling and transport for slaughter. The OLPP would have increased federal regulation of livestock and poultry for certified organic producers and handlers.
However, because the final rule was published shortly before the inauguration of President Trump and had an effective date of March 20, 2017, it was subject to a regulatory freeze to allow review by the new administration. USDA delayed the effective date of the rule several times, and on December 18, 2017 (as previously reported), issued a proposal to withdraw the OLPP rule. In its withdrawal proposal, USDA announced that it had concluded that the OLPP rule exceeded the Agency’s statutory authority under the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA). Moreover, USDA determined that the resulting changes to the existing organic regulations could have a negative effect on voluntary participation in the National Organic Program, leading to increased costs for both producers and consumers.
In response to its proposal to withdraw the OLPP rule, USDA received approximately 72,000 comments. Apparently, 63,000 of the comments (more than 56,000 of which were form letters) opposed the proposed withdrawal. Approximately fifty comments supported withdrawal. (According to USDA, the remaining comments were not clearly for or against).
In the preamble to its final rule withdrawing the OLPP rule, USDA discusses the basis for its determination that the OFPA does not authorize those regulations, and responds to the comments by the opponents of withdrawal. USDA reasons that the OFPA authorizes the Agency to develop regulations to ensure that livestock and poultry are organically produced but the statutory language related to animal care is focused on avoiding or minimizing organic animals’ ingestion of non-organic substances. The OFPA cannot reasonably be interpreted as giving USDA carte blanche to develop animal welfare standards. USDA also notes that the OLPP rulemaking did not identify a failure of the organic market under the currently operative regulations, so as to justify additional regulation. Finally, USDA’s corrected cost benefit analysis demonstrates that the cost of the OLPP rule outweighs potential benefits. Under these circumstances USDA declines to regulate, even though the organic industry appears to support such regulation by (as suggested by the number of comments opposing withdrawal). The withdrawal of the OLPP rule is effective May 13, 2018.
Not surprising, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) “blasted” USDA’s withdrawal of the OLPP. As we reported in our earlier posts, OTA sued USDA over the Agency’s repeated delays of the effective date of the OLPP final rule. That action remains pending. Earlier this month, USDA filed its reply in support of the motion to dismiss. Now that the OLPP rule has been withdrawn, OTA can be expected to amend its complaint to challenge the withdrawal. We will continue to monitor this case.
Whether or not the OLPP rule withdrawal survives legal challenge, a significant number of consumers and retain businesses remain focused on animal welfare standards within the organic industry. USDA’s withdrawal of the OLPP final rule does not prevent organic producers from providing their animals with outdoor access or voluntarily adopting all or some of the standards that were included in the OLPP final rule, nor does it prevent customers from demanding that producers comport with such standards. The proliferation of private certification labels regarding animal welfare appears likely.