Chickens raised at a family farm in Illinois. New USDA organic standards seek to set minimum requirements for outdoor time.
Chickens raised at a family farm in Illinois. New USDA organic standards seek to set minimum requirements for outdoor time.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced Wednesday that it will move forward with a controversial set of rules reforming organic standards for livestock and poultry.

Officials from the department’s Agricultural Marketing Service say the revised standards will set clearer and more consistent guidelines for the organic market, which in 2015 was worth more than $43 billion in the United States alone. Those guidelines will include provisions for how organic producers must treat animals to “ensure their health and wellbeing” from the time they’re being raised all the way through transportation and slaughter, according to the department.

The final rule sets minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements for organic chickens and clarifies that outdoor space must include soil and vegetation, for example.

While animal welfare groups have largely supported the revised rules, industry groups and some Republican policymakers have been highly critical. Earlier in the week, the National Pork Producers Council called the set of rules “another poke in the eye to agriculture” that creates “unreasonable” requirements for American farmers.

“This parting gift from Agriculture Secretary [Tom] Vilsack is not welcomed,” said John Weber, a pork producer from Iowa and president of the National Pork Producers Council, in a statement. “This unnecessary, unscientific midnight regulation won’t win him any friends in the agriculture community he’s apparently joining.”

On Tuesday, the U.S. Dairy Export Council announced that Vilsack will join the organization as president and CEO effective Feb. 1, 2017.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) – who chairs the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry – was also critical of the final rules, scarcely changed since their initial introduction in April 2016.

“I, and a bipartisan group of members of Congress, have expressed concerns multiple times over this detrimental rule,” Roberts said. “We, and the farmers and ranchers we represent, were flat out ignored.”

Overall, the USDA has received more than 6,700 public comments on the revised organic rules for poultry and livestock.

There are three stages to implementing the rule, according to the department.

Within one year, all provisions – except for outdoor access requirements for layers and indoor space requirements for broilers – must be implemented. Organic broiler operations must comply with the indoor space requirements within three years. All organic poultry operations must comply with the outdoor access requirements within five years.

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