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Organic Chicken Fraud

Organic Chicken Fraud

While pretending to score a victory for real organic eggs and poultry, a new rule is just another gift to industrialized farms that are running regenerative farms out of business. Action Alert!

The USDA’s rule, known as the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards rule, is being applauded by some because it would set standards for outdoor and indoor living requirements for poultry, in effect prohibiting what are referred to as “porches”—small, screened in enclosures that allow CAFOs to game the organic system. But this is smoke and mirrors. There are far more problems with the rule that allow the status quo to continue. We must urge the USDA to do much, much better.

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 concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) to use screened-in, enclosed “porches” to satisfy the requirement for outdoor access:

This is a violation of the law, plain and simple, but the USDA has allowed CAFOs to get away with this for years, allowing CAFOs to factory-farm their “organic” poultry and eggs.

The new rule may end the use of screened-in “porches” like the one seen above, but it will allow CAFOs to continue to violate the spirit of the law that stipulates organic chickens must have outdoor access.

The rule sets indoor and outdoor living standards for egg-laying hens and broiler chickens. For one, the proposed 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. 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. Worse still, the proposed rule allows CAFOs to cover half of the outdoor area with concrete or gravel. How does that allow the birds to engage in their “natural behavior” as called for in organic regulations?

Mark Kastel, Executive Director of OrganicEye, told the USDA:

In the course of my work, I have likely visited more certified hen houses, of every scale, than probably anyone in the US. And even with adequate space outside and doors open, usually only 1-10% of the birds ever venture out. And certifiers allow that normally happens for a very limited number of hours each day. I’ve never seen even one bird out at larger commercial broiler operations. Zero animals outside.

And, he concludes, the current rule does nothing to change this set of circumstances. It allows CAFOs, where the majority of organic eggs currently come from, to continue business as usual, subverting the spirit, if not the letter, of the law contained in organic regulations.

The last insult in the rule: it proposes a number of options for how long to give producers to comply—and one of the options is 15 years!

This amounts to 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 eggsorganic 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 the diet. 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.

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 institute a meaningful rule on poultry standards to support real organic agriculture.

Action Alert! Take action below to comment on the public docket for the Organic Livestock and Poultry Standards rule. Please send your message immediately.

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