An independent report has been released that focuses on widespread abuses in organic egg production, primarily by large industrial agribusinesses. The study profiles the exemplary management practices employed by many family-scale organic farmers engaged in egg production, while spotlighting abuses at so-called factory farms, some confining hundreds of thousands of chickens in industrial facilities, and representing these eggs to consumers as “organic.”
The report will be formally presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, developed the report, Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture, following nearly two years of research into organic egg production. The report also contains a scorecard rating various egg brands on how their eggs are produced in accordance with federal organic standards and consumer expectations.
“After visiting over 15% of the certified egg farms in the United States, and surveying all name-brand and private-label industry marketers, it’s obvious that a high percentage of the eggs on the market should be labeled ‘produced with organic feed’ rather than bearing the USDA-certified organic logo,” said Mark A. Kastel, The Cornucopia Institute’s codirector and senior farm policy analyst.
According to the United Egg Producers (UEP), the industry lobby group, 80 percent of all organic eggs are produced by just a handful of its largest members. Most of these operations own hundreds of thousands, or even millions of birds, and have diversified into “specialty eggs,” which include organic. At least one UEP member, Hillandale Farms, has been implicated in the recent nationwide salmonella outbreak affecting conventional eggs.
Cornucopia’s report focuses not on the size of some of these mammoth agribusinesses but rather on their organic livestock management practices. It says that most of these giant henhouses, some holding 85,000 birds or more, provide no legitimate access to the outdoors, as required in the federal organic regulations.
The new report comes at a critical juncture for the organic poultry industry. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the expert citizen advisory panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA on organic policy, has been debating a set of proposed new regulations for poultry and other livestock that would establish housing-density standards and a clearer understanding of what the requirement for outdoor access truly means. The industry’s largest operators, along with their lobbyists, have been loudly voicing their opposition to requirements for outdoor space.
“Many of these operators are gaming the system by providing minute enclosed porches, with roofs and concrete or wood flooring, and calling these structures ‘the outdoors,’” stated Charlotte Vallaeys, a farm policy analyst with Cornucopia and lead author of the report. “Many of the porches represent just 3 to 5 percent of the square footage of the main building housing the birds. That means 95 percent or more of the birds have absolutely no access whatsoever.”
“If one animal has the legal right to be outdoors, then all animals have the same right, whether they choose to take turns or if they all choose to be outside at the same time,” said Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator with the University of Minnesota and former chairman of the NOSB.
At previous meetings of the NOSB, United Egg Producers represented industrial-scale producers and publicly opposed proposals to strengthen regulations requiring outdoor access.
“We are strongly opposed to any requirement for hens to have access to the soil,” said Kurt Kreher of Kreher’s Sunrise Farms in Clarence, N.Y. And Bart Slaugh, director of quality assurance at Eggland’s Best, a marketer of both conventional and organic eggs based in Jeffersonville, Pa., noted that, “The push for continually expanding outdoor access … needs to stop.”
Family-scale organic egg farmers, and their allies, intend to challenge corporate agribusiness lobbyists and make their voices heard at the October 25 meeting of the NOSB.
In 2004, The Cornucopia Institute launched a similar campaign to rein in what it called “scofflaws” operating industrial-scale organic dairy farms milking as many as 10,000 cows in confinement/feedlot settings.
A series of legal complaints filed by Cornucopia resulted in the decertification of or sanctions to some factory dairies, and after years of organizing, the organic community was able to persuade the USDA to incorporate strict benchmarks into the standards requiring organic ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) to obtain a significant amount of their feed intake from grazing on pasture. A phase-in of the new regulations ends in June 2011.
“From the beginning our position was that the original organic regulatory language actually means something,” said Kastel. “Just because it didn’t prescribe exactly how to comply with the requirement for ‘access to the outdoors for all organic livestock’ or ‘access to pasture for ruminants’ doesn’t mean farm operators could ignore the requirement.”
“As in organic dairying, we discovered similar flagrant violations of the law in the organic egg business,” lamented Kastel. “Some of the largest operators even have a note from their veterinarian, or some state official, saying ‘we recommend that you not let your birds outside to protect their health.’ And some accommodating, corporate-friendly organic certifiers have signed-off on this,” Kastel said.
Cornucopia has again filed legal complaints against several poultry companies that either offer their birds no access to the outdoors or “faux” outdoor access—very small enclosed porches.
After visiting scores of egg producers in nine states, the authors of the Cornucopia report also conclude that the vast majority of family-scale producers are complying with the organic regulations and meeting consumer expectations. “This is the good news in this report,” explained Kastel. “Now the USDA needs to step up and protect ethical organic farmers from unfair and illegal competition.”
“An important subset of organic farmers are even going far beyond the minimum requirements in the organic standards: not just providing access to the outdoors but rotating birds on high-quality pasture,” affirmed Vallaeys.
The report profiles some of these producers who have mobile chicken coops, like Alexandre Ecodairy Farms in Northern California, with 2,800 birds in three movable henhouses. Alexandre’s eggs are available at Whole Foods stores in Northern California and the North Coast Co-op, in Eureka-Arcata, California.
“When consumers buy organic eggs, I think they expect that the hens were out on pasture, enjoying fresh air, running around, foraging in the pasture,” said Stephanie Alexandre of Alexandre Ecodairy Farms.
“In addition to the pastured poultry producers with mobile coops, most organic family-scale producers have fixed henhouses holding 1,000-10,000 birds,” stated Vallaeys, who is an expert on farm policy and animal welfare issues, with advanced degrees from Harvard and Tufts.
The best producers with permanent housing profiled in Scrambled Eggs have plenty of pasture available surrounding their chicken houses, multiple popholes (doors) of adequate size and maintain the birds by rotating them into separate paddocks, allowing a rest period for the pasture to recover.
Laying hens on pasture-based farms tend to be under less stress—based on their greater opportunity to exercise and ability to engage in instinctive foraging behaviors that cuts down on aggression toward their flock mates— and frequently live closer to three years instead of the one year that is common on industrial-scale farms.
“Our hens are healthy, live longer, and produce better-tasting and more nutritious eggs. How can you go wrong with pasturing?” said Tim Koegel of Windy Ridge Natural Farms, an organic producer in Alfred, New York.
Organic customers are also becoming increasingly aware of a growing body of scientific literature confirming the nutritional superiority of eggs when the birds have an opportunity to eat fresh forage, seeds, worms and insects.
“Our job, and the basis of this research and report, is protecting the livelihoods of family-scale organic farmers who are being placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage by corporations that are more than willing to ignore the rules and cut corners in pursuit of profit,” added the Cornucopia’s Kastel.
One of these producers is Ivan Martin of Natural Acres in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, whose pastured poultry operation went out of business last year. “Consumers saw my eggs next to other so-called organic eggs bearing the exact same USDA Organic label, and probably thought they were equivalent in terms of outdoor access and nutrition. We could not compete with those [factory farm] eggs,” said Martin, who hopes to re-launch his organic poultry business.
Scrambled Eggs and the organic egg brand scorecard can be viewed here.
“The commercial size egg industry—both conventional and organic—has great concerns with birds having outdoor access,” wrote The United Egg Producers in testimony before the National Organic Standards Board.”
Riddle, a former NOSB chairman, illustrating the illegality of the small porches as a substitute for true outdoor access, added, “The outdoor access space needs to be sufficient in size and designed to accommodate all animals being outdoors at once.”
“Just as with our dairy brand scorecard, our goal is to empower consumers and wholesale buyers with information to make good, discerning purchasing decisions—rewarding the heroes and sending a strong message to the bad actors,” Kastel stated.
“These giant ‘factory farms,’ or Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs), generally produce eggs from caged birds, but they have diversified, depending on which way the marketing winds blow, to cage-free, vegetarian, omega-3 and the organic label,” Kastel added.
“Whether it’s laying hens for eggs, hogs for meat, or cows for dairy, organic customers expect livestock to be treated with respect and in compliance with the standards,” added Kastel. “The good news in this report is that the vast majority of organic farmers meet these high expectations. Now the USDA needs to step up to protect them from unfair competition. Congress gave the USDA the authority to protect these farmers from unscrupulous competitors. It needs to wield that power!”
Organic farmers, and their urban allies, can obtain full information (including talking points) regarding attending the upcoming NOSB meeting or submitting written comments by visiting the action alert section at: http://www.cornucopia.org/category/action-alerts/. The USDA’s National Organic Program website is: www.ams.usda.gov/nop