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Report Says Family Farmers Face Unfair Competition from “Organic” Factory Farms

(Beyond Pesticides, October 26, 2010) A new report by the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based farm policy research group, focuses on widespread abuses in some 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 was formally presented to the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week at meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) in Madison, WI. The NOSB, the expert citizen advisory panel set up by Congress to advise the USDA on organic policy, will be addressing the issue of chicken “stocking rates” in organic agriculture at the meeting.

The Cornucopia Institute 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 co-director 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.

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.

Scrambled Eggs comes at a critical juncture for the organic poultry industry. The NOSB 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.”

After visiting scores of egg producers in nine states, the authors of the Cornucopia report also conclude that the vast majority of family-scale producers are complying with the organic regulations and meeting consumer expectations. “This is the good news in this report,” explained Mr. Kastel. “Now the USDA needs to step up and protect ethical organic farmers from unfair and illegal competition.”

The best producers with permanent housing profiled in Scrambled Eggs have plenty of pasture available surrounding their chicken houses, multiple popholes (doors) of adequate size and maintain the birds by rotating them into separate paddocks, allowing a rest period for the pasture to recover. Laying hens on pasture-based farms tend to be under less stress—based on their greater opportunity to exercise and ability to engage in instinctive foraging behaviors that cuts down on aggression toward their flock mates— and frequently live closer to three years instead of the one year that is common on industrial-scale farms.

Organic customers are also becoming increasingly aware of a growing body of scientific literature confirming the nutritional superiority of eggs when the birds have an opportunity to eat fresh forage, seeds, worms and insects.

“Our job, and the basis of this research and report, is protecting the livelihoods of family-scale organic farmers who are being placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage by corporations that are more than willing to ignore the rules and cut corners in pursuit of profit,” added Mr. Kastel.

One of these producers is Ivan Martin of Natural Acres in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, whose pastured poultry operation went out of business last year. “Consumers saw my eggs next to other so-called organic eggs bearing the exact same USDA Organic label, and probably thought they were equivalent in terms of outdoor access and nutrition. We could not compete with those [factory farm] eggs,” said Mr. Martin, who hopes to re-launch his organic poultry business.

“Whether it’s laying hens for eggs, hogs for meat, or cows for dairy, organic customers expect livestock to be treated with respect and in compliance with the standards,” said Mr. Kastel. “The good news in this report is that the vast majority of organic farmers meet these high expectations. Now the USDA needs to step up to protect them from unfair competition. Congress gave the USDA the authority to protect these farmers from unscrupulous competitors. It needs to wield that power!”

Public Participation: Making organic better

While organic agriculture is far better than chemical-intensive conventional agriculture for people and the environment, there is always room for improvement. When there is a problem with the organic regulations, there is a process for the public to weigh in on what is allowable in organic production. For information on making general comments to the NOSB on issues such as chicken stocking rates, see Getting Involved on the USDA National Organic Program website.

Additionally, USDA maintains a “National List” of the synthetic substances that may be used and the non-synthetic substances that may not be used in organic production and handling. The Organic Foods Production Act and NOP regulations authorize any person to petition to amend the National List. This authorization provides that any person may petition the NOSB for the purpose of having a substance evaluated by the NOSB for recommendation to the Secretary for inclusion on or removal from the National List. Petitions are evaluated by the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) for recommendation to the Secretary of Agriculture for inclusion on or removal from the National List. You may review the substances currently on the National List. To begin the process of filing a petition, visit the National Organic Program’s “How to file a petition” webpage. For more information or for assistance, contact Beyond Pesticides, 202-543-5450 or [email protected].


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