Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack last day in office USDA
U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) employees gathered in the lobby of the Whitten Building to wish Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack best wishes upon his departure from the USDA where he has served as Secretary for the past 8 years. Best wished to the Secretary and his family in Washington, DC on Friday, Jan. 13, 2017. USDA photo by Tom Witham.

Vilsack’s exiting moves box in animal agriculture

Vilsack’s last action limits producers’ freedom of choice to make sound decisions about animal care.

As he packs his belongings, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack presented one more parting gift to agriculture – adding animal welfare standards to the nation’s organic food production law. A few days before Vilsack resigned from his post at USDA last Friday, the regulation was cleared by the Office of Management and Budget, the last step before becoming final.

“This parting gift from Agriculture Secretary Vilsack is not welcomed,” says National Pork Producers Council President John Weber, a pork producer from Dysart, Iowa. “This unnecessary, unscientific midnight regulation won’t win him any friends in the agriculture community he’s apparently joining. The National Pork Producers Council will work with the Trump administration and Congress to repeal yet another ‘midnight’ regulation.”

This USDA’s amendment to the Organic Food Production Act of 1990 would strictly dictate how organic producers must raise livestock and poultry, marking the first time animal welfare standards are classified in federal law.

In April 2016, the USDA proposed amending the act to “create greater consistency in organic livestock and poultry practices.”

Among those proposed changes include these animal welfare standards.

  • Clarify how producers and handlers must treat livestock and poultry to ensure their health and well-being throughout life, including transport and slaughter
  • Specify which physical alterations are allowed and prohibited in organic livestock and poultry production
  • Establish minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for poultry

As stated by livestock industry organizations, these standards included are not based on science and are outside the scope of the organic food production law, which limits consideration of livestock as organic to feeding and medication practices.

“Animal production practices have nothing to do with the concept of ‘organic,’” Weber says. “These new standards will present serious challenges to livestock producers and add complexity to the organic certification process, creating significant barriers to existing and new organic producers.”

Vilsack’s exiting action limits producers’ freedom of choice to make sound decisions about animal care. As he leaves his eight-year post at USDA to enter the animal agriculture community to lead the Dairy Export Council, it would be interesting to see how he deals with increased regulations choking farmers and ranchers’ profits.

Be that as it may, the inclusion of the animal welfare standards in the organic food production law is setting a dangerous precedent and adds a new tier of confusion to the organic certification process. It first restricts the practices of livestock producers in the organic segments and paves the way for more regulations for all of food animal production, possibly placing the entire industry in a box tightly sealed by those wanting to see to its obliteration.

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