Organic Free Range Chicken Might Not Be So Free After All

While the “free range” label has allowed many consumers to choose eggs that come from chickens more ethically and humanely raised, a recently proposed policy could change all of that.

As part of the proposed Food Safety Modernization Act, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are pushing for a rule that would require organic farmers that have over 3,000 hens to keep them separate from other wildlife.

The separation is intended to reduce the chance for salmonella in eggs, but organic farmers argue that it is impossible to keep free range chickens completely separate from other wildlife, and the new rule would require them to change how they house their chickens.

The USDA’s labeling of chickens has already been put into question the US has opened its borders to chickens are processed in China, and when it comes to chickens here at home, the agency’s criteria for treatment of “organic” and “free range” fowl is regularly criticized. Case in point: larger organic farms with hundreds of thousands of chickens in the same building can employ small screened porches, that have a capacity for 1-3% of the birds, to satisfy the legal requirements for “access to the outdoors.”

“In effect, the FDA’s proposed recommendations would steer organic egg producers toward the use of porches, which would be the most effective and cost-efficient way to ensure complete compliance with the rule. Why would farm operators invest the extra labor and expense to meet the FDA requirements, and put their birds outside, when they can create a token structure, attached to their main building, and continue to confine their animals?” said Mark Kastel, Co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, a social justice non-profit focused on small farmers.

Seen as a small farm vs. big farm issue, organizations like Cornucopia are concerned that such regulations will put the small scale organic farmers out of business, as well as put into question organic certification overall. “This is collusion between two Obama administration agencies to significantly and permanently weaken the integrity of the organic standards,” said Kastel.

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Image: SMcGarnigle