‘Organic’ eggs don’t require chickens to have open-air pens, USDA says

The Agriculture Department is allowing factory egg farms, some with 100,000 hens to a barn, to earn an organic imprimatur without much more than a nod to letting chickens leave their coop.

NEUVO, Calif. — Strolling through a flock of free-roaming rust-colored hens, Christopher Nichols admits that no one truly knows whether his chickens are happier because they can strut around and wander outside.

But consumers are happier, and that matters a lot to the third-generation egg farmer and a slew of other egg producers who charge a premium price for eggs bearing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s organic certification, which governs not only what hens eat, but nearly everything about how they live their lives.

“The consumers have an idea of what this sort of operation looks like,” Nichols said, raising his voice above the chorus of clucks emanating from more than 7,000 Rhode Island Red hybrids at a Nuevo, California, ranch that supplies his family company, Chino Valley Ranchers.

“When you give them a building with no windows, no natural light and a screened porch and label it as ‘organic,’ I think they’re going to be a little bit ticked off.”

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Those consumers will have to be ticked off for at least another six months. In early November, the USDA quietly shelved a rule that would have given consumers a bit more of what they assume is part of organic eggs — open air.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue (who is not related to the chicken-raising family) left open a loophole in organic regulations that has allowed factory egg farms, some with 100,000 hens to a barn, to earn an organic imprimatur without much more than a nod to letting chickens leave their coop — that is, attaching a gated, screened porch to their barns.

It was the third delay for the obscure but highly contentious rule, which had made it into the Federal Register on the day before President Donald Trump took the oath of office, only to fall victim to his “regulatory freeze” executive order.

The well-being of a laying hen may seem an esoteric concern to the average consumer confronted with a slew of labels that grade eggs and purport to explain how they were laid — free-range, cage-free or pasture-raised, for instance.

But how much space, and what kind, each hen gets is crucial to the $5.5 billion egg industry.

Producers owe a good deal of their growth to organic,…

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