Organic Rule for Poultry Mandates Outdoor Access with Space Allowances

USDA Issues Final Rule on Organic Including Animal Welfare


On January 18, 2016, the USDA issued a final rule on organic production including production of eggs that includes an animal welfare component.  NAEF issued comments and USDA made revisions in the final rule to allow for restricting outdoor access of layers (see website below).




For example in the above-referenced 212-page response from USDA, NAEF noted the following:


Pages 47-48 -- Not prohibiting beak trimming and not mandating only using infra-red for the procedure.


Pages 80-83 -- provides indoor space for layers based on 2.25 pounds of bird per 1 square foot. In explaining the details, it notes that a 32 week old bird weighing 4.3 pounds must be given 1.43 sq. feet of space.  At 80 weeks of age and weighing 4.5 lbs, the bird must be given 1.5 sq. feet.


Page 83-87 – outdoor access requirements are 1 sq. ft. for every 2.25 pounds of bird. A new section was added on page 85 to the proposed rule [205.241 (d)] noting restricting outdoor access in response in inclement weather.  A new section was added on page 86 on temporarily restricting outdoor access in consideration of the health, safety or well-being of the bird may be jeopardized.  And on page 87 is section 205.241(d)(5) restricting outdoor access for preventative health.


Organic Rule As Originally Proposed Needed Revisions


USDA proposed a new stricter federal rule (81 Fed Reg. 21955 et seq.) governing organic poultry on April 13, 2016 setting space requires at 2 square feet per bird both inside and outside stating the need for poultry to dust-bathe and peck or root in the soil. The rule will also eliminate beak trimming.


Miles McEvoy, Deputy Administrator of USDA’s organic program was quoted in the April 8th Wall Street Journal saying that the new regulations “better align with consumer expectations.” NAEF noted the federal government needed revisions on the ramifications of outdoor access (potential for spreading avian influenza, more ectoparasites, an increase in e. coli in poultry, beak trimming reduces hen deaths, etc).


McEvoy went to say that Americans “expect organic livestock to spend a considerable amount of their life outside during appropriate weather conditions, so we proposed to codify that in a measurable way.”


Betsy Babcock, Handsome Brook Farm in New York is also quoted in the WSJ saying that only 2 square feet of outdoor space is not enough. On her pasture-raised poultry farm that allow 109 square feet of outdoor space as less space means more dirt rapidly happening from the roaming chickens.


NAEF Comments Opposing Organic Egg Production

The following are the comments filed by NAEF last April opposing the organic proposal that included an animal welfare component mandating outdoor access for egg laying chickens.

The National Association of Egg Farmers representing more than 200 egg farmers nationwide producing more than 10 billion eggs annually for human consumption appreciates the opportunity to comment on the proposed amendments to 7 CFR Part 205 National Organic Program; Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices. This is docket number AMS-NOP-15-0012; NOP-15-06PR (Regulatory Information Number (RIN) 0581-AD44 for this rulemaking.

The intent of this proposed rule is to create greater consistency in organic livestock practices through additional specificity and clarity to better ensure consistent compliance by certified organic operations and to provide for more effective administration of the National Organic Program (NOP) by AMS.  We appreciate the purpose of the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 (OFPA) (7 U.S.C. 6501-6522) is to assure consumers that organically produced products meet a consistent and uniform standard (7 U.S.C. 6501), but we question the subjective nature of some of the proposed amendments pertaining to egg laying chickens without the benefit of practical science.  Furthermore the amendments are expected to satisfy consumer expectations that organic livestock meet a uniform and verifiable animal welfare standard including exhibiting natural behaviors.  In the case of poultry, those behaviors suggest the need for dust-bathing and perching.  Poultry perform these “natural behaviors” for specific reasons, i.e. dust-bathing to rid themselves of ectoparasites that create discomfort for the poultry and perches for poultry to escape predators.  Those two reasons are why modern egg farms more than 5 decades ago house poultry in cages to reduce the incidence of ectoparasites and to protect them from predation.

The proposed amendment suggest avian living standards would set maximum indoor and outdoor stocking densities. We question the subjective determination established in the proposed rule for allowable space for poultry.  Specifically, § 205.241 (b) (7) specifies no more than 2.25 pounds of poultry per square foot of indoor space (or roughly 2 square feet per adult hen). § 205.241 (c) (3) specify no more than 2.25 pounds of poultry per square foot of outdoor space (2 square feet for an adult hen).  There is no available science today that suggests this is an acceptable space allowance. Furthermore, outdoor access of poultry is recognized by the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service as potential concern in spreading poultry diseases. The USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service acknowledges the potential for the spread of AI:



The other poultry viral disease recognized by the USDA Animal& Plant Health Inspection Service that can spread easily is Exotic Newcastle Disease (END) from outdoor poultry: 



We therefore strongly object to § 205.241 (d) (3) which eliminates the concern of diseases as sufficient cause for confinement of poultry.  This nation just endured in 2015 the most severe animal disease when nearly 50 million chickens and turkeys were destroyed to avian influenza (AI).  Rigid biosecurity efforts have been incorporated into egg production practices, but the concern remains for the spread of poultry diseases such as Avian Influenza and Exotic Newcastle Disease. Administratively dismissing the great concern for the spread of poultry diseases is irresponsible and should be eliminated from this proposed rule.


This proposed amendment § 205.241 (c) (3) specify no more than 2.25 pounds of poultry per square foot of outdoor space (2 square feet for an adult hen) should also be removed from the proposed rule.  To allow outdoor access for organic poultry jeopardizes the existence of commercial poultry industries including the members of the National Association of Egg Farmers.


A Lesson In Non-Sustainability from Ringling Bros. and Barnums & Bailey Circus


The owner of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus recently told The Associated Press that the circus will close forever in May. This ends 146 years of "The Greatest Show on Earth." The executives at Feld Entertainment cited several factors said the decision including animal welfare activists, declining attendance, and high operating costs.  Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment which owns Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey commented (Wall Street Journal Jan. 17, 2017) that when they stopped using elephants in 2016 the resulting decline in attendance was more than they anticipated.  The circus was no longer sustainable.  


Sea World's Orlando, Florida announced they were ending their Orca whale performances in March 2016.    Janet Davis, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and expert on popular culture, referring to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and this campaign against Sea World said "They see this as an opening to call for more dramatic changes. PETA and other groups are not going to stop".  Will Sea World remain sustainable when their most popular entertainment comes to an end? 


That brings us to cage-free chickens.  Already we read of activists claiming cage-free is not cruelty-free, and so chickens must have access to pasture.  Despite what some egg farmers say is the "future"  and favor a mutual compromise with the activists, poultry scientists from around the world have commented about removing cages altogether.  The following comments appeared on LinkedIn under Poultry Science where more than 7,300 scientists worldwide participate including NAEF's Ken Klippen who has two degrees in Poultry Science.


Marcelo Lang Director, Global Poultry Brands at Elanco reported that free-range chickens are more exposed to infectious diseases. He asks "Is anybody surprised that with the removal of modern commercial poultry management practices, old diseases that had almost disappeared have made a comeback? Old bird diseases occur more among free-range hens Over the last two decades old bird diseases, such as Coryza, Blackhead and Pasteurelle multocida increasingly reared their ugly heads among free-range hens. These diseases barely occurred when laying hens were kept in cages".


Johanes Berchmans said "I think old disease remain in the field and wait the right moment to show up".  Marcelo Lang responded to Berchman's comments saying "and the right moment is when producers abandon proven bio security measures in favor of ill-informed, "feel good " ones that do more harm than good 


Grant Mc Ewan stated "I think the bigger problem is we have changed genetics so much that if you move back to an old system these diseases show up again".


Enrique Coelho Brugnara said "In my opinion the key point for the reintroduction of old diseases is the lack of environment control, is not that easy to eliminate parasites in the soil. In addition, free-range chickens live more time and are more prone to infections over time. 


Dr.Abdul Ghayas stated "The diversity of infectious agent is an important factor, most of the time not considered by farmers. It is the major threat for free-range indigenous poultry:.


Ken Klippen has published numerous articles showing cage-free is not an improvement over the modern, conventional cages as it relates to chicken welfare, egg quality, the ergonomic challenges posed on farmers picking up eggs off the ground, and ultimately the consumer who will be paying more.  Cage-free eggs average about $1- 2 more per dozen than conventional cages, whereas free-range eggs are being offered on Amazon at $105 for 15 dozen ($7 per dozen eggs). 


Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Baily Circus discovered changes in their business practice was not sustainable. Sea World will likely discover the same with the end of their Orca whale performances.  Will consumers continue to purchase 20+ dozen eggs annually when prices are $3 or $7 per dozen? When the egg industry was dealing with bird flu in 2015 and prices hit $3 per dozen, we witnessed a 30% decline in demand in certain markets. The trend toward cage-less egg production will have farmers realizing that changes in their business practices are not sustainable for all egg farmers.  


Massachusetts Facing Wasted "Food Tax" in Ballot Initiative


Wasted tax dollars is upsetting to everyone and should alert Massachusetts voters when they go to the polls on November 8th. Question 3 on the ballot will increase your food dollars $45 per person without the benefits hoped for.  While cage-free egg farming is claimed by many as the future, the facts show it is a reverting to the past. This is the law of unintended consequences where voters are encouraged to “feel” with the wording of the ballot initiative instead of examining the facts.


More than five decades ago, egg farming transitioned to cages to:

1)      Improve the lives of the chickens (by reduced death in a flock of chickens in half)

2)      Improve the quality of eggs (by removing the likelihood of the eggs coming in contact with manure)

3)      Improved the working conditions of the farmer (less dust from the chickens scratching in the shavings). 

4)      A vote in favor of Question 3 will definitely lead to $14 more per person for eggs in Massachusetts as substantiated by Dr. Harry M. Kaiser, Cornell University in 2016 and twice as much as eggs when purchasing pork as reported Dr. Jason Lusk, Oklahoma State University in 2014.  Massachusetts – are you ready to increase your food budget by $45 per person?



FACT: California passed an identical ballot initiative with the proponents saying the impact on egg prices would be just pennies.  California consumers are paying 90% more for a dozen eggs than the rest of the nation.  That’s hardly pennies a dozen.


FACT: The most recent investigation into the best production systems by scientists in the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply showed the facts do not support cage-free egg production as the ideal model for the egg-producing chicken.  McDonald's was one of a list of contributors to this investigation. Those scientists reported to McDonald's and others that cage-free systems lead to more death loss among chicken due to their establishing a pecking order. 


FACT: Penn State researchers recently published last month the results of a 6-month study testing 6,000 eggs and concluded backyard flocks of cage-free were more likely to be contaminated with Salmonella. Farmers today know how to produce a safe and wholesome egg while caring for the chickens. 


FACT: Those food companies including McDonald’s will learn that cage-free is not the consumers' choice.  Check out the stores selling both types of eggs today and find which ones the consumers are buying.


The extended future of egg production will be right back to chickens in cages after the food companies learn the lessons that farmers learned five decades ago. We hope the Massachusetts voters don’t make the same mistake as California voters did and learn the hard way with skyrocketing egg prices.

Ken Klippen, National Association of Egg Farmers

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