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Why That 'Organic' Label Doesn't Mean What You Think It Means

Thanks to current USDA rules, factory farms that label their meat and eggs "organic" tend to look just like their non-organic counterparts. Sources who spoke with MUNCHIES estimate that less than 10 percent of organic factory farm chickens ever see the...

Ask the average consumer of organic eggs, beef, or poultry what they imagine the farm where their dinner was raised looks like and they'll probably describe something similar to the quaint scene at Fowl Creek Farm in Salem, Michigan.

When the sun is high, its chickens kick up dust baths in front of the farmhouse while geese float in nearby pond. At dusk, the chickens peck in the yard around an old red barn, hunting bugs or frogs near the creek that runs through the property. They are truly pasture-raised and "beyond organic," says farmer Jaclyn Balbuit, who sells the eggs to restaurants and at farmers' markets. The greatest threat to the birds' health are the neighborhood hawks circling above.

"I believe in treating the birds like you'd treat a person," Balbuit tells MUNCHIES.

But not all organic farms stick to that philosophy. And what almost no one who purchases organics suspects is the reality at some USDA-certified organic operations: up to 200,000 chickens crammed into factory farm buildings with little natural night or access to the outdoors; birds living their entire lives under fluorescent bulbs in poorly ventilated sheds; half-bald chickens falling into and slowly dying in manure pits.

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A chicken on Fowl Creek Farm in Salem, Michigan. All photos by the author.

Organic farms that resemble standard industrial operations exist because the USDA's organic rules are specific for pesticides and synthetic hormones, but its animal welfare guidelines are vague and not vigorously enforced.

That leaves it to organic farmers and agribusiness to make decisions about raising organic animals. A factory farm now only requires a few meaningless adjustments to its welfare practices before it can market meat as organic and drastically boost revenues.

Predictably, corporate farms are capitalizing on the opportunity presented by loose organic standards and consumers' willingness to pay a premium for what they believe to be humanely raised animals.

It's organic farming by packaging, not by practice. And that leaves a gap between what many consumers imagine they are buying and what they are actually buying.

That point is illustrated in a recent American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals poll that found 68 percent of organic meat consumers said they expected organic animals "to have access to outdoor pasture and fresh air throughout the day" and "have significantly more space to move than on non-organic farms."

It's difficult to determine how much organic meat originates on corporate industrial farms, but experts estimate between 25 and 80 percent of organic eggs originate at them.

However, the USDA is proposing new rules that it says will strengthen welfare standards for organic poultry and eggs. The rules will, in theory, improve animals' sheds, healthcare, transport, and slaughter, but might not be mandated for up to seven years.

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Eggland's Best, the nation's largest producer of organic eggs, is facing criticism for how it treats its birds.

For chickens, the changes would, very generally, mean more access to the outdoors, increased contact with soil, improved housing, and enough space "to engage in natural behaviors," as the rules read.

The changes also include revisions of similar rules put in place in 2013 for cows and livestock.

While it all sounds nice, many animal welfare groups aren't satisfied. They note the rules require each chicken to have one square foot of space indoors and two square feet of space outdoors—an improvement over no space requirement. However, one square foot of indoor space is the norm in traditional industrial farming, while in the European Union, one organic chicken gets 43 square feet of outdoor space.

Frances Thicke is an organic farmer in Iowa who sits on the National Organic Standards Board. The board recommends changes to the USDA, though it did so prior to his appointment. He says the rules are a "step in the right direction," if not ideal.

"There's a whole range of natural behaviors chickens engage in, and these rules will make more of those behaviors available to them, and provide more opportunities for chickens to behave like chickens," he tells MUNCHIES. "They would affect big poultry operations, and force them to change their practices and scale back."

The conditions inside those big poultry operations aren't exactly heartwarming.

Sources who spoke with MUNCHIES estimate that less than 10 percent of organic factory farm birds ever see the sun.

Fluorescent bulbs remain lit for up to 22 hours daily in large, barren sheds. If birds stay awake, then they grow faster, however distressing that may be. Waste from up to 200,000 chickens builds up ammonia, and that damages birds' and workers' respiratory systems.

While current organic rules require outdoor access, factory farms bend the rules by installing a small door that only one chicken can fit through at a time. Sources who spoke with MUNCHIES estimate that less than 10 percent of organic factory farm birds ever see the sun.

Even if a chicken ventures through the doors, it isn't outside in the traditional sense. Factory farms' version of outdoors is a concrete porch with a roof. That prevents birds from scratching in the soil, digging for bugs, and kicking up a dust bath, as they naturally love to do.

Those conditions "clearly do not comport with the values and expectations people have about organic farms," says Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, an industry watchdog that has sued the USDA for not enforcing its organic regulations. He tells MUNCHIES that Cornucopia's focus groups find consumers feel "altruistic" about paying for organic meat and eggs "because they feel that they're doing something good for society."

"[The factory farms] are a betrayal to what consumers think they're economically supporting," Kastel says, adding that scorecards that rate organic companies are available via Cornucopia.

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"I believe in treating the birds like you'd treat a person," Fowl Creek Farm's Jaclyn Balbuit says.

The USDA claims its proposed rules will close the gap between what consumers clearly want from organic farms and the reality.

Indoors, birds will receive one square foot of space. Artificial lighting will be limited to 16 hours daily, and farms must install enough windows for natural light to fully illuminate the facility. Proper ventilation is required, and farmers will monitor ammonia levels.

Doors will be larger and more numerous, while hens will receive two square feet of outdoor space, though only one square foot of soil. Importantly, porches are banned, and farmers must train birds to go outdoors. The changes will leave corporations with less room for chickens, thus forcing some to reduce their operations' size.

The porches' elimination is perhaps the most important rule, says Dena Jones, the Animal Welfare Institute's Farm Animal Program Director. The USDA "made a terrible mistake when it allowed producers to include enclosed porches … so it's trying to undo a mistake it made ten years ago," she says.

The proposed standards also codify widely used slaughter practices. Temple Grandin, an expert on slaughtering who helped modernize the industry several decades ago, says there's no difference in how organic and standard animals are slaughtered, and that's a good thing.

Still, room for improvement remains. Currently, fully conscious chickens are shackled by their feet and hung upside down. Their heads are then dipped in an "electrocution bath"—an electrified troth of water that knocks out the birds before their necks are sliced.

A method called "controlled atmosphere stunning" is considered a less stressful alternative, if done correctly, Grandin tells MUNCHIES. It essentially involves sending a bird in a travel cage through gas chamber, so at no point is it grabbed and hung upside down en route to its beheading.

'What is chicken enrichment anyway?' asked Kansas Senator Pat Roberts recently. 'It could be yoga.'

While the changes seem wonderful, the reviews are mixed.

Agribusiness isn't thrilled, as it stands to lose the most. Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, chairman of the Agriculture Committee and a defender of corporate farming interests, served up a brilliant quote during a recent press conference with agriculture reporters.

"What is chicken enrichment anyway? It could be yoga. That might be difficult. Video games? They do that for various animals. Sports? A gourmet meal? I think probably music is the best thing we can do to entice the chickens to come out and be happier, you know free range, roaming around. I think probably Ray Price would be the best person. Certainly not Prince. At any rate, something soothing."

I tried calling Roberts to ask the obvious question: If consumers will hand over cash for chickens that do yoga and listen to Ray Price, why not outfit the barn with a stereo system and provide some mats? Why cheat customers?

He didn't return my calls.

Roberts and agribusiness health and safety advocates also raise concerns about animals roaming outdoors. They say that fosters salmonella and other disease, but "safety advocates" are usually industry-hired quacks. Nate Lewis, farm policy director of the Organic Trade Association, says health concerns are "a red herring—it's them not wanting to get rid of their porches."

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Birds peck outside a barn on Fowl Creek Farm

Of those I spoke with, the most supportive of the new USDA rules is Lewis, whose organization represents the nation's largest organic producers.

"It's a consumer-driven market with tension between what consumers want and what producers can deliver… and this bridges that tension. It's a really good compromise between commercial-scale livestock and preference for animals that are treated well."

Most don't feel the same. Jones, from the Animal Welfare Institute, helped trash the USDA in a 2013 San Jose Mercury News op-ed entitled "Organic sellout: USDA guts organic rules to protect mega-farms."

While Jones says she doesn't "love" the new rules, she adds, without much enthusiasm, "it's going to have an impact and it's going to be an improvement."

Her agency asked the USDA to consider some adjustments, including increasing the amount of required outdoor space.

Kastel has similar concerns, and points out that 200,000 birds tromping around a small yard will leave the ground devoid of life and unappealing to chickens. Ultimately, the new rules are "bullshit," Kastel tells me, and he points to small organic farmers' honest practices as models for how it should be done.

"The rules pale in comparison to what actual organic farmers are doing … and this defrauds consumers. They farm by press release with pretty packaging and websites, but it's a lot harder to get your hands dirty and do the right thing."