In August 2022, the US Department of Agriculture released a new draft rule which they insist will bring organic egg and livestock companies into stricter compliance with the rules while assuring a level playing field for competitors.
Mark Kastel, co-founder and executive director of Wisconsin-based advocacy group Organic Eye, cries foul. And he has a history with this process. At a recent press conference, he said, “When we lobbied Congress to pass the Organic Foods Production Act as part of the 1990 Farm Bill, the USDA testified against the bill. They didn’t want any part of regulating organics. What we had envisioned as a unique public-private partnership has devolved into an adversarial relationship and it has been this way during every administration since the laws passed, Republican and Democrat.”
Looking at organic egg production, the majority takes place on commercial operations – commonly with 20,000-30,000 birds per building – and with some of the largest operating certified organic houses with as many as 200,000 chickens per building and over a million birds on individual “farms.” Alternative sources are the family-scale farms.
As Kastel notes, “The big shots at Bayer, Monsanto, and Syngenta don’t really like organics and their – I don’t want to say minions, but their partners at the USDA have created a hostile situation. At first, corporate agribusiness attacked organics. Then they bought organics, bought most of the major brands, and they produce most of the ‘organic’ eggs.”
OrganicEye analysts have deduced that the new USDA regulations, if adopted, would require only 1 to 2 square feet outdoors for each broiler and laying hen. By comparison, Organic Valley, a major US marketer, requires their farmers to provide 5 square feet, while European regulations require 43 square feet per bird. And to further discourage the birds from going outside, “the USDA is proposing operators be allowed to cover half of the outdoor area with concrete or gravel,” says Kastel. “How are the birds going to engage in their natural instinctual behavior – foraging, eating grass, scratching and pecking for bugs and worms – on concrete?”
He notes that he has seen a tremendous amount of organic hen houses and broiler houses across the country. “There are no birds out. It’s a rare example when there are birds out, and it’s almost exclusively on family-scale farms. All too often there are only a couple of small doors that open out – token doors. There might be 10,000 to 50,000 birds in a building and maybe five to 15 birds outside the door.”
There is precedent, he notes, for the USDA’s capitulation to corporate pressure. “A company in Massachusetts, called the Country Hen, wanted to enter organic production, so they applied for certification. The first thing you have to do is file your organic system plan with your certifier. Although the law said the birds had to have access to the outdoors, what they were providing for outdoors was a very small screen porch. So their certifier said, ‘That doesn’t constitute the outdoors We’re not going to certify you.’ And so they went shopping for a certifier and got another one who said, ‘We’re not going to certify you. That’s not the outdoors.’ They got smarter. Instead of going to a third certifier, they went to the then-director of the National Organic Program at the USDA, appealing the decision by the certifier. In 72 hours, the director instructed the certifier to certify. And, and so, bingo. Now the biggest conventional egg producers in the United States, with millions of birds, saw the green light to enter organics. They built buildings, single buildings with 190,000 birds, each with a small little fenced or screened-in porch along the side, concrete floor, metal roof, and these little teeny doors that go out. That space will only hold one to three percent of the birds in that massive building, meaning 97 percent of those birds have no access to the outdoors. Remember, the law says all livestock must have access.”
Why don’t the birds go outside now? “First of all, it’s an inhospitable environment outside. There’s no food, there’s no water, there’s little if any shade, and it’s trampled down and compacted. Well, now it’s probably going to be concrete. And they have to use very small doors that typically open out. The birds are instinctively concerned with predators and they want to see the sky to make sure there isn’t a hawk, or owl or some other bird that’s going to have them for lunch. After all, they taste like chicken. So those doors are also an impediment.”
“We’ve told this to the USDA, we filed legal complaints against these outfits, but the USDA refused to act because they say they need better rules. So what do these new rules look like? During Tom Vilsack’s tenure as USDA Secretary during the eight years of the Obama administration, they committed to cleaning up the mess in livestock facilities for cows and poultry. It didn’t happen for cows at all. While Obama and Vilsack were lame ducks, they published a rule in the Federal Register, which the Trump administration deep-sixed, and now, with Vilsack back in office, the USDA has this new draft rule that’s going to take care of all these problems. And the lobbyists, the organic trade association are applauding. Many of the other non-governmental organizations that work in organics have declared victory, and even some of the humane groups in the United States think this is going to be a great step forward. However, this rule is profoundly deficient. It will institutionalize livestock factory production in organic eggs and poultry. This is a factory farm-friendly rule.”
Much of the problem comes from elected representatives who are successfully lobbied by the big corporations. “In Washington, when the Obama administration was talking about clamping down on eggs in this Senate Agriculture Committee, it was Democratic Senator Stabenow from Michigan, who was defending Herbruck’s, and the chairman, who was a Republican from Kansas, defending another giant million-bird operation from Cal-Maine, one of the biggest conventional egg producers.” Herbruck’s is a Michigan-based egg producer with over two million hens, while Cornucopia terms Cal-Maine “an industrialized organic brand that focuses on profit margin rather than dedication to organic ideals and animal welfare. Raising around six million laying hens total from their various ‘farms,’ this brand represents a conventional player who has some business in the organic industry.”
Similar conditions exist for broilers. “These are being produced by companies like Tyson. They import their feed. There’s nothing organic about the operation. No broilers are outside. Now, they are on the local farm I buy from. They rotate on fresh pasture, and that’s why my chicken tastes great. But these conventional outfits don’t want to let their chickens out. They raise the fast-growing breeds that that are mature in four to six weeks. To comply with the law, they might open the door for the last week or two. But the birds don’t go out. They’ve never been out their entire life. Will this change with the new law? No. The birds won’t be out. The USDA gave them everything they want.”
And it isn’t just our elected representatives who must be held responsible. “The agribusiness lobbyists run the USDA,” Kastel says. “It doesn’t matter who’s in there, conventional, or organic. In organics, we’re in the pollution prevention business, we’re in the cancer prevention business, it’s much more cost effective, to change the way we grow and process food in this country than it is to pay for remediating these problems after the fact.
“We have the cheapest food in the world, bar none. And the most expensive healthcare. We’re spending just about six to eight percent of our gross national product on food, at least before inflation started kicking in. And about 16 to 18 percent on health care, pushing towards 20. It was the opposite a few decades ago. So that is a really important investment, because compared to other industrialized countries, our longevity has been reduced. We have more chronic disease, more infant mortality. We’re really not getting a good payback.
“So I don’t have the answer other than we need to take back our government. Whether it’s the FDA regulating drugs and medical devices or the EPA allowing chemicals that they banned long ago in Europe, money talks in America and the lobbyists are the agents. I love democracy. I refuse to admit that our government is for sale. But it’s for lease every two to six years in Congress, and every four years in the White House. You pony up the money to hire lobbyists and you pony up the federal campaign cash and we all need to work on restoring our democracy. So our vote means more than ever now.”
The new USDA rule is currently open for public comment:
https://www.ams.usda.gov/rules-regulations/organic-livestock-and-poultry-standards. Mailed comments must be postmarked by October 11, 2022.
Federal eRulemaking Portal: https://www.regulations.gov. Follow the instructions for submitting written comments electronically. The deadline to submit written comments is 11:59 p.m. ET, October 11, 2022.
Mail: USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (“AMS”) strongly prefers comments be submitted electronically. However, written comments may be submitted (i.e., postmarked) via mail to Erin Healy, MPH., Director Standards Division, National Organic Program, USDA-AMS-NOP, Room 2646-So., Ag Stop 0268, 1400 Independence Ave. SW, Washington, DC 20250-0268. Mailed comments must be postmarked by October 11, 2022.
Mark Kastel started his career working for agribusiness giants International Harvester, J.I. Case, and FMC, but when a health imperative forced him to switch his diet to organic food, he began practicing sustainable agriculture. As a consultant, he worked for the CROPP Cooperative in 1989, where he conducted the initial market research leading to the establishment of the Organic Valley brand; he also worked with seed producer Blue River Organics and acted as a lobbyist for the Farmers Union. He co-founded the Cornucopia Institute before establishing Organic Eye.
(B. A. Nilsson, 9/20/22)