Family Farmers Face Unfair Competition from "Organic" Factory Farms
CORNUCOPIA, WI -- An independent report has been released that focuses on widespread abuses in organic egg production, primarily by large industrial agribusinesses. The study profiles the exemplary management practices employed by many family-scale organic farmers engaged in egg production, while spotlighting abuses at so-called factory farms, some confining hundreds of thousands of chickens in industrial facilities, and representing these eggs to consumers as "organic."
The report will be formally presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture at the October meeting of the National Organic Standards Board in Madison, Wisconsin.
The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, developed the report, Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture, following nearly two years of research into organic egg production. The report also contains a scorecard rating various egg brands on how their eggs are produced in accordance with federal organic standards and consumer expectations.
"After visiting over 15% of the certified egg farms in the United States, and surveying all name-brand and private-label industry marketers, 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," said Mark A. Kastel, The Cornucopia Institute's codirector and senior farm policy analyst.
According to the United Egg Producers (UEP), the industry lobby group, 80 percent of all organic eggs are produced by just a handful of its largest members. Most of these operations own hundreds of thousands, or even millions of birds, and have diversified into "specialty eggs," which include organic. At least one UEP member, Hillandale Farms, has been implicated in the recent nationwide salmonella outbreak affecting conventional eggs.
Cornucopia's report focuses not on the size of some of these mammoth agribusinesses but rather on their organic livestock management practices. It says that most of these giant henhouses, some holding 85,000 birds or more, provide no legitimate access to the outdoors, as required in the federal organic regulations.
The new report comes at a critical juncture for the organic poultry industry. The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the expert citizen advisory panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA on organic policy, has been debating a set of proposed new regulations for poultry and other livestock that would establish housing-density standards and a clearer understanding of what the requirement for outdoor access truly means. The industry's largest operators, along with their lobbyists, have been loudly voicing their opposition to requirements for outdoor space.
"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,'" stated 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. That means 95 percent or more of the birds have absolutely no access whatsoever."
"If one animal has the legal right to be outdoors, then all animals have the same right, whether they choose to take turns or if they all choose to be outside at the same time," said Jim Riddle, organic outreach coordinator with the University of Minnesota and former chairman of the NOSB.
At previous meetings of the NOSB, United Egg Producers represented industrial-scale producers and publicly opposed proposals to strengthen regulations requiring outdoor access.
"We are strongly opposed to any requirement for hens to have access to the soil," said Kurt Kreher of Kreher's Sunrise Farms in Clarence, N.Y. And Bart Slaugh, director of quality assurance at Eggland's Best, a marketer of both conventional and organic eggs based in Jeffersonville, Pa., noted that, "The push for continually expanding outdoor access " needs to stop."
Family-scale organic egg farmers, and their allies, intend to challenge corporate agribusiness lobbyists and make their voices heard at the October 25 meeting of the NOSB.
In 2004, The Cornucopia Institute launched a similar campaign to rein in what it called "scofflaws" operating industrial-scale organic dairy farms milking as many as 10,000 cows in confinement/feedlot settings.
A series of legal complaints filed by Cornucopia resulted in the decertification of or sanctions to some factory dairies, and after years of organizing, the organic community was able to persuade the USDA to incorporate strict benchmarks into the standards requiring organic ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) to obtain a significant amount of their feed intake from grazing on pasture. A phase-in of the new regulations ends in June 2011.
"From the beginning our position was that the original organic regulatory language actually means something," said Kastel. "Just because it didn't prescribe exactly how to comply with the requirement for "access to the outdoors for all organic livestock' or "access to pasture for ruminants' doesn't mean farm operators could ignore the requirement."