Outside access key to organic egg farms
National Organic Standards Board may tackle issue in October
By STEVE BROWN
Organic egg farms are not limited to small, family-size operations, the co-founder of a farm policy research group says.
Mark Kastel, of Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, described a commercial-scale egg operation in Northern California that has about 2,800 hens in three mobile pens.
"The birds have plenty of access to fresh pasture, which is what the spirit of the law is in organics," he said.
"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," Stephanie Alexandre of Alexandre Ecodairy Farms in Crescent City, Calif., said.
The Cornucopia Institute recently completed a two-year survey of conditions at 15 percent of the egg farms in the U.S. Most of the farms surveyed are in the Midwest, where most egg production takes place, but farms in California and Washington were included as well.
Many of the operations own hundreds of thousands, or even millions of birds, and have diversified into "specialty eggs," which include organic. "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," Kastel said.
"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,'" said 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."
Cornucopia's report comes at a critical time for the organic poultry industry. The National Organic Standards Board, the citizen advisory panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA on organic policy, has been considering new regulations for poultry and other livestock that would establish housing-density standards and a clearer understanding of the requirement for outdoor access. The board will meet in October.
"We have presented a draft that recommends birds have access at 6 weeks old," Kastel said. Many birds are brought to a farm well after that age, he said, "but if they've never been outside before, they don't know what the outside is like, so they don't go out even if they do have some access, especially if it's not attractive."
Attractive conditions, he said, are high-quality, rotating pastures and plenty of doors.
"Organic standards are scale-neutral," he said. "But if organic standards are properly enforced, I'd say they're scale-limiting. I think a truly organic farm could have 10,000 or even 20,000 hens."
Kastel said the majority of organic farmers follow the law, "but a lack of enforcement puts them at an economic disadvantage."
Cornucopia Institute: www.cornucopia.org