The Trump administration officially withdrew an Obama-era rule that would set higher standards for the treatment of animals whose meat could be sold as organic.
The rule, created under the United States Department of Agriculture, would require poultry to be housed in spaces large enough to move freely and fully stretch their wings. Livestock would be required to have some access to outdoor space year round.
The USDA officially overturned the rule Monday, after delaying its implementation three times. It was first created in 2016 and built on seven years of deliberation.
“The existing robust organic livestock and poultry regulations are effective,” said USDA Marketing and Regulatory Program Undersecretary Greg Ibach in a statement. “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.”
Tougher rules would limit participation in the voluntary National Organic Program, Ibach argued, and said the onus is on Congress to regulate animal welfare.
The current language governing what can be certified organic is clear on some points. Animals must be raised without antibiotics or growth hormones, and their feed must also be organic without GMOs or unapproved synthetic pesticides. But there is less clarity around animal welfare and living conditions. Many hens and cows live in the same or similar conditions as their non-organic counterparts, with no room to move and only screened-in porches for "outside" access. The USDA estimates that about half of all organic eggs come from hens living in total confinement.
The rule was poised to hurt large-scale organic egg farms that house up to 180,000 birds in one barn, said the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which represents organic farmers. Some of these farms house as many as three egg-laying hens per square foot with no time spent outdoors.
In contrast, Organic Valley, one of the most popular medium-scale organic producers in the United States, provides each bird with five square feet of space. In Europe, birds are given 43 square feet.
The association says that this bill hurts smaller egg producers that provide better conditions for their poultry, while benefiting the large-scale, industrial farms that make up just 5 percent of all producers.
“Consumers trust that the Organic seal stands for a meaningful difference in production practices. It makes no sense that the Trump Administration would pursue actions that could damage a marketplace that is giving American farmers a profitable alternative, creating jobs, and improving the economies of our rural areas,” the OTA said in a statement responding to the withdrawal.
The proposed rule drew 47,000 comments, but only 28 supported its withdrawal, according to data compiled by the OTA.
“This is representative of the influence lobbyists and election money has at the Trump administration’s USDA,” said Mark Kastel, co-director of the Cornucopia Institute, which provides research on organic agriculture and has long been critical of USDA standards.
“They’re servicing large, conventional egg producers at the diservice of small and medium-sized organic farms,” he said. These large companies recognize the growing popularity of organic products and want to trick consumers into purchasing their own by obfuscating the way they treat their animals, Kastel argued.
Six out of 10 American say that it's highly important that animals used to produce organic food are raised on farms with higher standards of animal welfare. More than half of Americans say it's highly important that animals used to produce organic food are able to go outside and move freely.
Organic meat and dairy sales totaled $47 billion in 2016 and the organic egg market grew by 12.7 percent annually between 2007 and 2016. About 30 percent of American households now buy organic, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer research company.
More from Newsweek