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USDA Delays Rule That Would Guarantee Organic Chickens Access To Pasture

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has delayed implementation of a federal rule that would make stricter standards governing organic egg production. 

The delay comes in part following disagreement over just how much outdoor frolicking the laying hens should be allowed.

The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule — which was finalized in the last days of the Obama administration — clarifies exactly what the organic standard means by "outdoor access."

"There are loopholes that allow producers currently to use basically porches, second-story covered porches, as outdoor access," says Maddie Monty of the Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont.  
These "porches" are small balconies with concrete floors that are encased in mesh; the unit basically sticks out of the side of the large laying barn at the second-story level. 

Monty says the majority of producers do not use porches, but "there are some larger poultry farms in the South, and in the Midwest in particular, that are using these second-story porches as outdoor access. And so a lot of the impetus for this rule was to clear up that loophole."

New rules finalized in January 2017 clarified that laying hens must have access to outdoor soil and vegetation to meet the organic standard. 

But in February, under the new administration, the USDA delayed the implementation of the rule until May. Then on May 9, 2017, the agency further delayed implementation until at least November 14, 2017.

The agency did not respond to requests for comment, but in a statement on their website states that the six-month delay is to "allow time for further consideration by USDA."

Many organic egg farmers do give the birds access to pasture. But when it comes to volume of sales, most of the organic eggs on the market are produced by large operations that don't give the laying hens access to pasture.  

Monty and other organic advocates argue that by requiring all farmers who sell organic eggs to provide access to pasture, it will level the playing field among organic farmers.

She says the current "outdoor access" definition puts the vast majority of organic producers "at a disadvantage because they're competing in the same market with these production facilities that are taking advantage of loophole and not providing their birds with meaningful outdoor access."

It takes more land and becomes more costly to provide laying hens with access to pasture — especially in an operation with hundreds of thousands of birds.

Monty says she believes that all Vermont hen farms are in already compliance with the new rule, and wouldn't have to change their practices if it were implemented.

While the key sticking point seems to be over "outdoor access," the rule also outlines humane handling requirements for transporting livestock and poultry to sale or slaughter. Additionally it prohibits several kinds of physical alteration, like de-beaking chickens or docking cows’ tails.

If the rule is implemented, there is a five-year phase-in plan to allow producers time to adjust their operations.

Kathleen Masterson as VPR's New England News Collaborative reporter. She covered energy, environment, infrastructure and labor issues for VPR and the collaborative. Kathleen came to Vermont having worked as a producer for NPR’s science desk and as a beat reporter covering agriculture and the environment.
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