WASHINGTON, June 1, 2016 - Egg producers are winning support on both sides of the aisle in their fight against the Agriculture Department’s proposal to require hens on organic farms to roam outside their barns. Large-scale producers say the rule, which is supported by the Organic Trade Association, would force major egg operations out of the organic market.
The senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow, says she has personally raised the producers’ concerns with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. And last week, she joined committee chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., in sending a strongly worded letter to the department, urging it to extend the comment period on the proposed rule by 90 days. House Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., also signed the letter.
The letter cites multiple concerns with the rule, including “reduced access to organic products, substantially increased organic food costs for consumers” and significant disruption to the organic feed sector. USDA officials say they expect to decide on whether or not to extend the comment period in the next week.
Stabenow represents the state of Michigan, home to one of the largest organic operations in the country, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, which has 2 million organic hens. There are an estimated 15 million organic hens nationwide.
“I have a real concern about the space requirements,” Stabenow told Agri-Pulse. “I’m really hoping there will be more flexibility given. I do think it’s an area of great concern. The Herbrucks do a great job.”
The rule also would strengthen standards for cattle and other livestock, but the biggest impact is expected to be on poultry. Large organic producers typically comply with the current requirements for outdoor access by allowing hens to go out on covered, screened porches that protect them from predators or contact with wild birds, which spread avian influenza.
The enclosed porches also make it easier, producers say, to comply with the Food and Drug Administration’s egg safety regulations, which require farms to guard against rodents, which can infect flocks with salmonella. The rule would require farms to have two feet of outdoor area for every bird, and 50 percent of that would have to be soil.
Greg Herbruck, one of three brothers who manage the fourth-generation operation, says he spent $125 million setting up the organic operation, which includes a feed mill and processing operation. The rule would require the farm to have 100 acres of pasture for the hens, but the entire site is only 80 acres in size, he told Agri-Pulse.
“It wasn’t required of us to have that much space and we didn’t,” he said. “Several of my peers have the same problem.”
He said the farm’s sales have exploded, growing 35 percent so far this year alone. “We’re one of the success stories, or so it would seem in this program, and they want to slam the breaks on farms like ours being able to participate,” he said.
USDA itself estimates that the number of organic layers could be reduced by 43 percent nationwide because of the requirement. The department says that 90 percent of organic farms with aviary systems could drop out of the market and instead sell their eggs onto the cage-free, non-organic market. Aviaries are mechanized structures that provide nesting areas for the hens and supply them with feed and water and remove manure.
Producers say the cage-free, non-organic market would be flooded with eggs.
“With the stroke of a pen, USDA is proposing to ban previously-approved production systems and basically stipulate that only pasture-based systems are organic,” Ron Truex, chairman of the United Egg Producers, told the Senate Agriculture Committee last week. “This proposal would drive a majority of current organic production out of business. As a consequence, consumer supplies of organic eggs would be restricted, consumer prices would rise, and growth in organic egg demand would be sacrificed on the altar of ideological purity.”
He said that FDA officials told UEP that they didn’t know about the proposal until it was issued, even though the agency regulates egg safety and has specific requirements to prevent the spread of Salmonella Enteritidis, a dangerous strain blamed for a 2010 outbreak that sickened thousands of people and was linked to an Iowa operation. FDA officials told producers they would communicate any concerns they have about the organic rule to USDA, privately.
However, a spokesperson for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service told Agri-Pulse that, "AMS consulted with FDA in the development of the proposed organic livestock and poultry practices rulemaking and continues to work with FDA as part of the regulatory process."
According to USDA data, the total U.S. cage-free flock is about 23.6 million hens, or 8.6 percent of the total U.S. flock. Organic hens make up 4.2 percent of the total flock and other classifications of cage-free comprise 4.5 percent. However, many conventionally produced eggs are sold to companies after processing, so the differences can be seen in grocery store aisles for shell egg prices. Last week, a 12-pack of USDA AA large white eggs averaged $1.21, less than half of the $3.02 commanded for a dozen cage-free brown eggs, which still comes in under the $4.01 asking price for an organic dozen.
Organic and cage-free shell egg sales combined to make up 42.8 percent of last week’s sales, and Herbruck is worried that moving organic eggs to the cage-free market because of changes to the rule would flood the cage-free market.
“They say you can go do cage-free,” he said of USDA estimates that 90 percent of aviaries would leave the organic market. “We don’t have a cage-free market for those eggs. … We’re going to glut that market.”
Many food retailers have announced intentions to phase in the use of cage-free eggs, but that may not happen for several years.
The comment period on USDA’s proposal expires June 13, so extending it another three months as the lawmakers have requested would leave USDA even harder pressed to finalize the rule before President Obama leaves office in January.
The Senate and House appropriations committees also are keeping an eye on the department. Both the House and Senate versions of the fiscal 2017 appropriations bill for USDA and FDA include report language urging the department to pay attention to comments on the rule.
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