By Tom Polansek
CHICAGO (Reuters) - The U.S. Department of Agriculture scrapped proposed rules on Monday that for the first time would have mandated specific space requirements for hens laying organic eggs and spelled out what it means for the birds to have access to the outdoors.
The USDA determined it did not have the authority to impose the rules, which were proposed under former President Barack Obama, according to a statement. The agency also said that existing regulations were effective.
In 2016, under Obama, the USDA proposed the requirements in an attempt to increase confidence among consumers about what it means when food products carry an 'organic' label. Divergent farming practices within the fast-growing organic sector were causing confusion among shoppers and giving an economic advantage to egg producers who provided less space to their poultry, the agency said at the time.
However, the rules would have raised production costs for organic farmers and saddled them with more paperwork, Republican U.S. Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas said.
"America's organic livestock and poultry producers can now breathe easy that they can maintain the health of their flocks and herds the best way they see fit, and they will not be driven out of business by another government regulation," he said.
Under the proposal, farmers would have been required to provide each hen with at least 2 square feet (0.2 square meter)of outdoor space. It also would have defined outdoors as an area in the open air with at least 50 percent soil, and no solid walls or a solid roof attached to the birds' indoor living space.
In 2016, the USDA said that at least half of U.S. organic egg production came from operations that exclusively use roofed enclosures, known as porches, to provide outdoor access to hens. Such porches often have solid floors and no access for hens to soil or sunshine.
However, the porches meet USDA standards for producers of organic livestock to provide "year-round access for all animals to the outdoors."
Without the rules, some companies will mislead consumers about how organic products are raised, said Matt Bershadker, chief executive of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"Millions of animals will continue to suffer each year because of the USDA's abdication of its duty to enforce meaningful organic animal welfare standards," he said.
In January, a federal lawsuit accused Wal-Mart Inc of misleading U.S. shoppers by selling organic eggs laid by hens raised in enclosed structures. The packages said the birds had access to the outdoors, according to the complaint.
(Reporting by Tom Polansek, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)