But some large-scale organic companies have interpreted that mandate very loosely, and house their chickens tightly packed together on screened-in porches, where they never actually peck in the dirt or wander outside.
Related: Everything You Need To Know About Raising Backyard Chickens
We reported on this organic egg controversy earlier this year: About 80 percent of consumers who frequently buy organic products believe it’s important that organic eggs come from chickens that spend time outside, according to a 2016 Consumer Reports survey. But an article in The Washington Post revealed that Herbruck's Poultry Ranch, one of the country’s largest egg operations (it's home to 1.6 million chickens that supply more than 10% of all organic eggs sold in the U.S) doesn’t allow their birds to set foot outside, and that “each of the nine long rectangular barns at Herbruck's holds about 180,000 birds, or more than three hens per square foot of floor space.”
Related: 12 Best Brands Of Organic Eggs At The Grocery Store
So, are those porched-in hens still organic chickens? Or are they simply "cage-free" chickens? The Organic Livestock and Poultry Production final rule, which was approved by the USDA one day before the Trump Administration took office, says no. The new regulation would require organic egg producers to provide real outdoor space (not just porches) of around 2 square feet per chicken, and that those outdoor areas include vegetation or soil.
(Basically, chickens want to run free—like these runner ducks!)
Since the final rule was issued, there's been crickets from the USDA about the changes to the USDA Organic Standards. (The Trump administration put the new standard on hold, and hinted that it might even be withdrawn.) The Organic Trade Association, which represents many smaller organic companies, is now suing the USDA to demand that it allow the new rule to go into effect.
George Siemon, CEO of the Organic Valley farmer cooperative, which requires its egg producers to give their hens more outdoor space, says they've been waiting too long, and told NPR that for eggs to truly be certified organic: "It needs to be a whole system that features the bird's basic needs, and there's no doubt that a hen wants to be outside scratching in the ground." It's important to resolve the issue, because the demand for organic eggs isn't going down anytime soon (Here are 7 reasons eggs are a good-for-you food.)
Related: 10 Celebrities You Didn’t Know Had Backyard Chickens
Pushback from the large-scale egg producers
The rule gives egg producers five years to adapt to the new requirements. Big producers who couldn't meet the requirements would have to sell their eggs instead as "cage-free," rather than "organic." For obvious reasons, these big organic egg producers have continued to oppose the new rules, appealing to sympathetic members of Congress like Kansas Republican Pat Roberts and the Senate Agriculture Committee's senior Democrat, Debbie Stabenow. Both Roberts and Stabenow have asked the USDA to delay the ruling, claiming that "proposed changes to outdoor access standards could have a detrimental impact to both animal health and food safety.”
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We're not sure exactly what the "detrimental impact" of more outdoor space for chickens is on their animal health, or food safety (On the contrary, smaller spaces for chickens leads to a higher risk of diseases spreading.) But, we are sure that it's been reported that Stabenow has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from members of the Herbruck family.
“Nationwide, the demand for organic eggs has more than doubled since 2012, and producers like the Herbruck’s in Michigan have continued to step up to meet the need,” Stabenow argues. “Now is a critical time to ensure that we continue to support these organic producers so organic eggs can continue to be available and affordable for American families.”
As Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, told NPR about the lawsuit, "The industry is committed to this, and totally gets it, that it's in everybody's interest to make sure that the consumer gets what they're looking for," she says.
Right. What organic consumers are looking for: that is to say, organic eggs that are actually organic—not just labeled that way.