Read The Mix
Organic Egg Scorecard Rates Producers
By Nancy Crotti
Proposed federal regulations over how much access hens have to the outdoors have feathers flying within the organic egg industry.
The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), part of the United States Department of Agriculture, proposes that organic poultry producers provide all poultry with access to the outdoors except: during inclement weather; when birds are too young to have sufficient feathers; when outdoor conditions could jeopardize the birds’ health and safety; and when their presence outdoors would pose a risk to soil or water quality.
Farmers, lobbyists, natural foods co-ops and consumers have been voicing their concerns to the NOSB about the regulations, which the board first proposed in 2002. The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit farm policy research group, has chimed in with a report titled, “Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture,” which it released in October following nearly two years of research into organic egg production.
The report contains a scorecard rating various egg brands on how their eggs are produced in accordance with federal organic standards and consumer expectations. Farms are rated in such categories as type of henhouse, outdoor and indoor space available to each bird, and access to natural light and pasture.
The report’s findings are meant to alert consumers, the government and the organic industry to a lack of compliance with current regulations by some producers, and the need for new regulations, according to Mark Kastel, Cornucopia’s director and senior farm policy analyst. “There are not enough (organic) farmers to have any real political clout in Washington or the marketplace, but with our consumer allies, we have a lot of passion there and we say the co-ops are on the front line,” Kastel said. “The co-op members, of all organic consumers, are the most plugged-in and compassionate.”
Co-op shoppers want to know not only where their eggs are coming from but whether co-op staff members have visited the farms and seen for themselves how the eggs are produced, according to Yani Clement, lead grocery buyer at Valley Natural Foods in Burnsville.
Larry Schultz Organic Farm of Owatonna, which received Cornucopia’s highest “five-egg” rating, supplies most of the 975 dozen eggs sold weekly at Valley Natural as well as other Twin Cities co-ops, grocery stores and restaurants. “He’s just on the up and up,” Clement said of Schultz. “Even if customers want to go out and visit they can.”
Schultz said he farms the way his parents did—“old school.” Schultz confines young chickens, known as pullets, to the barn for a few weeks to make sure they feel safe there before letting them out. Indoors, they have about two square feet of space per bird, exceeding the proposed standard.
Outdoors, they enjoy scratching among the mixture of grasses he plants and resting in the shade of the trees. “We don’t fence them,” Schultz said. “From feedback from my customers, I don’t go there.”
Another “five-egg” farm, Green Pastures Poultry Farm in Cashton, Wis., uses a method similar to Schultz’s. Young birds are cautious at first, but “after a few weeks, they come running,” said the Amish farmer, who asked that his name not be published for religious reasons. If a young hen doesn’t make her way back to the barn at the end of the day, he’ll find her and carry her back inside.
Some larger organic egg producers use porches on their hen houses to approximate the outdoors rather than allowing the hens to walk around on the ground. The NOSB is proposing that bare surfaces other than soil, such as metal, concrete or wood, used in porch flooring, do not meet the intent of national organic standards.
Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator at the University of Minnesota Southwest Research and Outreach Center in Lamberton, served on the NOSB from 2001 to 2006 and said the porch issue first came up in 2002. He disapproved then and has not changed his opinion.
“It doesn’t meet the intent of the regulation or the letter of the regulation,” Riddle said. “The chickens can’t scratch in the dirt and eat leaves and seeds and insects and worms and things, which are natural parts of their diet when they are truly outdoors.”
A diet of green leaves, seeds, insects and worms is responsible for organic eggs’ firm, bright orange yolks and firm whites, he added.
The Amish farmer agreed. “The things that are going into some of these flocks—feeds and antibiotics and all that, it’s bound to show up in the egg somewhere along the line,” he said.
Kastel testified to the NOSB that given the options of a porch or a door on the end of a large henhouse, only 3–5 percent of birds would go outside. “They’re not going to climb over 2,000 birds in their way to get to the door because it’s a nice day,” he said. “We need to make sure there are adequate doors distributed.”
Self-described “commercial-size” organic egg farmers opposed to the proposed regulations sent a letter to the NOSB decrying the possible changes. These farmers warned the regulations would reduce production, harm the chickens, jeopardize food safety, hurt organic grain farmers and increase organic egg prices.
Bonnie Wideman, president of Midwest Organic Services Association, a certifying agency accredited by the National Organic Program, agrees the NOSB should be clearer about its regulations but can also see the larger producers’ point.
“All the organic eggs can’t come from operations that only have 300 birds,” Wideman said. “Nobody can make a living on 300 birds. Part of it is we do the best we can. We evaluate the living conditions for the animals, but we have to accept that you can have a farm with 10,000 birds.”
Riddle also acknowledged the larger producers’ concerns, but still favors changing the regulations. “I think we need transparency and accountability, and we need to meet consumer expectations,” he said. “I see it as kind of a wakeup call to action. One (goal) is to be informed by your personal purchasing, but the other is to influence the USDA and the NOSB to clarify and strengthen the regulations, just like they did with dairy.”
Nancy Crotti is a freelance writer and editor based in St. Paul.