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The USDA Is Being Sued for Delaying New Organic Standards

When you think of "free-range" chicken, what exactly comes to mind? That question, amazingly enough, is now central to a lawsuit filed against the U.S. government.

This debate centers around the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule. It is essentially an updated and more precise list of rules about how exactly meat, poultry and eggs will be produced if they are to score the coveted "organic" label—and the price increase that comes along with it. But the rule has been delayed and questioned so often in the eight months since it was officially introduced that the Organic Trade Association has resorted to the nuclear option: sue the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

Back in 1990, the Organic Foods Production Act established a baseline for organic requirements and established the National Organic Standards Board to regulate it. But as with lots of groundbreaking laws, the Organic Foods Production Act wasn't perfect; some of its rules were vague, and as organic food became a $47 billion industry, those ambiguities became a problem. Not surprising: Organic food is more expensive to both produce and purchase than conventional, but if a seller can work the rules to improve their margins, well, that's just more money for them.

One of those vague rules that's central one in this current debate involves egg-laying hens: Specifically, what qualifies their eggs as "organic." As of May 2017, around 14.6 million hens—nearly 5 percent of all egg-laying hens—are in that group. According to the original rules from 1990, organic hens must have year-round access to the outdoors. But the rules don't go further than that. What does "access" really mean?

(Quick note: there are different rules for chickens raised for their meat ("broilers") and chickens raised to lay eggs. What we're talking about here are egg-laying hens).

Many large companies, like Herbruck's Poultry Ranch and Cal-Maine Foods—the two largest organic egg producers in the U.S., according to NPR—have interpreted "access to the outdoors" to include what are called porches. These porches, as a Washington Post story showed, are often barely different from a conventional barn; they have a roof, walls and hard floors. The only difference? A section of those walls is screened. They're far from the bucolic ideal of chickens running through pasture, pecking at the dirt, squinting in the sun and stretching their wings (for more on that, see "This Ad Calls "Bullsh*t" on Cage-Free Eggs, So Let's Talk About Egg Labeling"), but technically, eggs from these hens qualify as organic. Those who use these porches sometimes defend the porches as protecting the chickens from the elements, like rain and predators. Those who do not use these porches are mostly annoyed that anyone would think a house with a screen in the wall counts as "access to the outdoors."

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