Factory Farm Egg Production, without Mandated Outdoor Access, Challenged

CORNUCOPIA, Wis. The Cornucopia Institute announced it has filed a formal legal complaint with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), alleging that one of the nation’s largest industrial egg producers, Michigan-based Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, is violating the federal organic standards by confining their laying hens in buildings on “factory farms” instead of providing legitimate outdoor access as required by law.

The Wisconsin-based farm policy research group also filed a similar complaint related to one of the suppliers of Organic Valley, a cooperative that secures most of its eggs from its family-scale farmer members.

“The federal organic standards clearly state that ‘year-round access for all animals to the outdoors’ is a requirement,” states Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst with The Cornucopia Institute. “The tiny porches attached to the henhouses on Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, Petaluma Egg Farm, a major Organic Valley supplier, and a handful of other industrial egg producers, fail to meet either the intent or the letter of the law governing organic production and food labeling.”

Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, based in Saranac, Michigan, is principally involved in conventional egg production, raising millions of conventional laying hens that are mostly confined in cages. They also raise, according to the Associated Press, at least 900,000 organic laying hens, principally at their corporate-owned Michigan facility, and in other locations under contract. According to public statements by company representatives, hens raised by Herbruck’s do not have access to the outdoors beyond concrete enclosed porches and patios.

“Nobody forced Herbruck’s to become certified organic. It’s a voluntary program. When this corporation decided to enter the organic market, they assumed a responsibility to their customers and to the organic community as a whole to understand the organic standards, including their intent,” states Kastel. “If they chose to look for loopholes in the rules, it is a gamble they willingly took and must be prepared for the consequences.”

In September 2010, The Cornucopia Institute released a report that contrasted the exemplary management practices employed by the vast majority of family-scale organic farmers engaged in organic egg production, while spotlighting abuses at “factory farms” — including Hillandale Farms, a major nationwide industrial egg producer that was implicated in the widespread 2010 salmonella outbreak centered in Iowa.

According to Cornucopia’s report, when producers adopt industrial-scale practices that fail to fully comply with the organic standards for livestock production, it places ethical family farmers at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace.

“The people that purchase organic eggs are under the understanding that these eggs are produced in a way to their liking. They are told the hens are able to go out and pick green grass,” said Loren Dale Yoder, a certified organic egg producer from Riverside, Iowa. “These are farmers that are cheating.”

In addition to the new complaint against Herbruck’s, The Cornucopia Institute also filed a separate legal complaint against the country’s largest name-brand organic egg marketer, CROPP, the farmer-owned cooperative that markets eggs under the Organic Valley brand. Organic Valley’s local eggs on the West Coast are produced by Petaluma Egg Farm, the industrial-scale egg producer that, like Herbruck’s, fails to give outdoor access to its laying hens.

Petaluma Egg Farm produces conventional and organic eggs under numerous brand names, including Rock Island, Uncle Eddie’s, Judy’s Family Farm and Gold Circle, as well as for Organic Valley. It also owns a major refrigerated food distribution company operating in California. According to Petaluma Egg Farm, their outdoor access consists solely of a “sun porch”—which is entirely enclosed and screened to prevent the birds from going outside.

On January 31, the USDA’s National Organic Program issued a policy memo clearly indicating their concurrence with the illegitimacy of using enclosed porches as a substitute for true outdoor access for organic poultry.

Organic Valley requires its family farmer-members around the country to provide a minimum of 5 square feet per bird outdoors, but an exception was made for Petaluma Egg Farm because, according to the cooperative, “state veterinarians and the California Department of Agriculture strongly advocate that birds do not have free-range outdoor access because of the risk of Avian Influenza transmission.”

Yet numerous other certified organic egg producers throughout the state of California are legally complying with federal law by providing legitimate outdoor access to their laying hens, including a number of exemplary pasture-based producers (there have been no published reports of avian influenza outbreaks). California organic farmers are bound by the same organic standards as farmers in the rest of the country.

“Sadly, it appears that upper management at CROPP, in their zeal to capitalize on the marketplace cachet of the ‘local’ food movement, has compromised the values that Organic Valley was founded upon,” lamented Kastel.

In an effort to resolve these issues prior to filing a legal complaint, Cornucopia requested, on a number of occasions, a meeting with the Board of Directors of the CROPP Cooperative, which repeatedly refused to meet.

The organic poultry industry finds itself at a crossroads as the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB), the expert citizen advisory panel to the USDA Secretary, 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 entails.

At its upcoming meeting, April 26-29 in Seattle, Washington, the NOSB will debate a proposed outdoor stocking rate for organically raised laying hens, currently proposed at 2 square feet per bird—viewed by many industry observers as woefully inadequate and a capitulation to pressure from industrial egg producers.

Cornucopia has been leading an effort to challenge corporate agribusinesses that would like to weaken the organic standards in their effort to legitimize “factory farm” egg production.

“We urge the USDA to take quick enforcement action against these industrial-scale scofflaws that are gaming the system. By doing so, we hope to protect the livelihoods of ethical family-scale organic farmers who are being placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage by corporations that are more than willing to cut corners in the pursuit of profit,” concluded Cornucopia’s Kastel.

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