USDA Lowers Standards for Organic Chicken

Organic Chicken May Not Be All It's Cut Out To Be: Critics Say USDA Skirts Labeling Law

February 26, 2003

(USA TODAY) -- Do porches count as the great outdoors if you're a chicken?

Under the 5-month-old National Organic Program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says they do -- and that has got consumer and environmental groups madder than a wet hen.

Under the federal program, chickens sold as organic must have access to the outdoors.

So when a USDA-accredited organic certifier in Massachusetts was called upon to investigate a local egg producer, it denied the company certification because its chickens did not have "adequate access to exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight."

The producer appealed to the USDA, saying its plan to build porches off the barn so the chickens could be in the fresh air was sufficient to meet the outdoor-access requirement. In October, the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service, which oversees the federal organic guidelines, authorized the producer to use the organic label anyway.

But that's not the end of it. A spokesman for Massachusetts Independent Certifiers Inc. says that organization will file a complaint today with the federal agency.

This is not what consumers of organic food, who are willing to pay premium prices for poultry they believe was raised humanely, had in mind, says Urvashi Rangan of the Consumers Union.

"It's two 30-foot-square balconies to provide access for 6,000 chickens -- and they're not even built. There's just a plan to build them," Rangan says.

"In the consumer's eye, the USDA is supposed to be the guard and the protector of the national organics program. But USDA has wasted no time in undermining the integrity of this rule."

In fact, consumer groups say, only five months into the federal program that took 12 years to create, exemptions are already piling up. When President Bush signed the government's annual spending bill last week, he also authorized a late addition that created a loophole to the organic program's requirement that all organic livestock be fed 100% organic feed.

The amendment, which took effect immediately, directs the USDA not to enforce the organic feed requirement unless the agency can prove that organic feed is readily available and costs less than twice the cost of conventional feed. It was introduced by U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Ga., on behalf of Fieldale Farms, a Georgia poultry producer.

This basically guts the organic rules, says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.

"They got this thing through for one producer in Georgia, and consumers all over the country now are not going to be able to have faith in the organic standard they've been waiting for for 12 years," Cook says.

Ann's NOTE: If you would like to complain about the lack of enforcement of appropriate Organic standards, contact the Secretary of USDA:

Ann Veneman Ann.Veneman@usda.gov

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