The USDA’s new rule for organic poultry standards is a big win for industrialized farming. They need to do better. Action Alert!
When you buy organic chicken, you may think you’re supporting farms that keep happy birds grazing freely in an open pasture. But thanks to the USDA and the industrialized farming operations they are looking out for, it’s quite possible you’re being deceived, especially if you’re buying from one of the nation’s big operators.
The USDA just published the final version of its Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards rule. If you just look at the agency’s press release, you’d come away thinking that they’ve done something meaningful to level the playing field for small organic farmers who take seriously the spirit of real regenerative, organic agriculture. This is another deception. There are some improvements, but overall the rule will allow concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs, otherwise known as ‘factory farms’) to conduct business as usual, usurping the organic seal to deceive consumers into buying their inferior products.
First, the good news. Current law requires “living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals” and “year-round access for all animals to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight.” Clearly this language prohibits confinement, but the USDA has allowed CAFOs to use screened-in, enclosed “porches” to satisfy the requirement for outdoor access. The new rule will disallow this practice.
The USDA’s proposed rule required 50 percent of the outdoor area to be soil—this number has been increased to 75 percent in the final rule. This change was needed to address another way in which CAFOs gamed the system: by having outdoor access for chickens simply as a concrete lot, hardly an environment in which chickens can engage in their natural behaviors as stipulated in the law.
While this is a step in the right direction, it falls far short of what true regenerative practices call for. Many CAFOs set up their operation in such a way that chickens are in effect disincentivized from going outside: to reach the soil, they would have to traverse a series of small doors to a semi-enclosed porch, perhaps exiting through another series of doors before they have to walk across a paved or graveled surface before finally reaching pasture. Such a system is a far cry from allowing birds to engage in their natural foraging behaviors, benefitting from a diverse diet from a healthy ecosystem.
The rule sets indoor and outdoor living standards for egg-laying hens and broiler chickens. For one, the indoor standards allow birds to be stacked in multi-tiered aviaries from floor to ceiling allowing as little as one square foot per animal. Further, according to some estimates, the proposed rule would require only 1-2 square feet outdoors for chickens (depending on weight). This is far less than what some CAFOs are already offering their birds! Organic Valley, for example, requires farmers to provide 5 square feet to chickens; European regulations call for 43 square feet per bird. Such a small amount of outdoor space is a disincentive for chickens to leave the buildings they are housed in, confined as they are.
All of this amounts, in our view, to mass deception and fraud. Consumers are willing to pay the premium for organic goods because they do not want to support the conditions on CAFOs, where tens of thousands of animals are confined in small spaces. The USDA has, for years, aided and abetted CAFOs in duping consumers into buying fake organic eggs and poultry. The agency’s own estimates tell us that half of all organic eggs come from CAFOs. Because it’s cheaper to convert a conventional CAFO to a “certified organic” CAFO than to actually produce chickens organically, farmers doing the right thing and following the spirit of organic rules and regenerative agriculture are being driven out of business.
This is crucial for those seeking healthier options, not to mention more humane options: organic eggs have been found to contain more micronutrients than conventional eggs: organic eggs have three times more omega-3 fatty acids, 40% more vitamin A, and twice as much vitamin E. Buying CAFO-raised organic eggs means consumers are not getting the benefits they think they are. These differences are likely down to both diet and environment. Pasture-raised chickens eat worms, slugs, and seeds they find among the grasses of the pasture, in addition to organic corn feed to supplement that diet in colder months. “Organic” chickens from CAFOs get most of their food from corn and soy, neither of which they have to hunt for.
The USDA has an opportunity to start regaining consumers’ trust in the organic label, but it cannot do so with dishonest attempts like this. Help us push the agency to do better.
Action Alert! Write to the USDA and tell them to support meaningful organic standards for poultry. Please send your message immediately.