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USDA balks at tougher rules for organic eggs

NUEVO, CA - NOVEMBER 9, 2017: Chickens, known as Rhode Island Reds, roam freely and also have access
Chickens roam freely and have access to the outdoors at the MCM Poultry farm in Nuevo, Calif., on Nov. 9.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Friday that it plans to withdraw Obama-era rules that would have made it tougher for large-scale egg farms to earn organic certification.

The withdrawal would leave intact a loophole that allowed massive factory farms to claim that a closed-in porch provides adequate outdoor access for tens of thousands of hens.

Smaller producers who provide open yards for egg-laying hens have complained that the loophole lets competitors reap the premium price of organic eggs without substantially changing their operations.

Livestock and poultry companies, however, complained that the rules went beyond the intent of the original law establishing organic certification, which covered only feed and medicine.

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United Egg Producers, an industry advocacy group, said the withdrawal was the “one logical conclusion” for the USDA, because the agency’s economic analysis suggested that the rule would have driven 45% of organic producers out of the market.

“That would have potentially impacted the availability of organic eggs to U.S. consumers,” said Oscar Garrison, the group’s senior vice president of food safety regulatory affairs.

The Organic Trade Assn., which has sued the USDA over its slow pace on enacting the rules, said it was “dismayed” at Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue’s announcement. The lawsuit is still pending.

“This groundless step by USDA is being taken against a backdrop of nearly universal support among the organic businesses and consumers for the fully vetted rules that USDA has now rejected,” the association said in a written statement.

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Friends of the Earth called the move a “slap in the face” while criticizing President Trump and calling on Congress to pass legislation to strengthen organic standards.

“Trump’s decision to cave to a handful of powerful agribusiness interests by scrapping the organic animal welfare rule is a slap in the face to organic farmers and to the millions of consumers who have put their trust into the organic label,” said Lisa Archer, the food and agriculture program director for the group.

The USDA said it would open a public comment period on the withdrawal before taking final action early next year. The rule otherwise would have taken effect in May.

geoffrey.mohan@latimes.com

Follow me: @LATgeoffmohan


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