Current regulations are unclear when it comes to the definition of "outdoors" for organic factory-farmed animals. The common "cage free" and "free range" labels may lead consumers to imagine a picturesque pastoral setting, but it's not the norm according to Mark Kastel, co-founder of The Cornucopia Institute, a consumer watchdog group.
While rules for USDA organic certification on all animal products requires that each animal spend time outdoors engaged in what is referred to as "natural behavior," the rules aren't clear and do not specify exactly how much space each animal is allotted or whether that space is directly connecting the animal with the earth or keeping them confined to a paved enclosure or open-air facility.
Farmers and agencies disagree on the importance of the issue with some seeing the spirit of the law as a better way to raise animals, despite the excess amount of work created in ensuring each animal spends quality time outside. Others see it as a nuisance. Allowing large flocks and herds access to the outdoors can lead to rodent problems and diseases, and leads to uncontrollable manure problems, says Greg Herbruck, a Michigan chicken farmer who has about 900,000 organic laying hens on his family's farm.
Kastel and The Cornucopia Institute filed complaints with the USDA last fall about several farmers who they believe are not meeting the organic standards for outdoor access, naming Herbruck as one of the offenders for his patio enclosures that don't qualify, in their opinion. Cornucopia is seeking distinction. Perhaps farmers such as Herbruck can only claim to use organic feed on their eggs, Kastel says, "There's nothing illegal with what they're doing…It's just illegal to label it organic."
Keep in touch with Jill on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jillettinger
Photo: Jill Ettinger