Free Range Chicken Eggs Threatened
By Crystal Wakoa
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are concerned about the possibility of salmonella contamination in our eggs. Good news, right? If the concern was genuine, it would be. But once again, the agencies, under the guise of protecting your food, are just making it harder for organic egg farmers who provide outdoor access to their chickens to stay in business.
Studies show that confining chickens to cages, the presence of flies, and large flock sizes pose the greatest risks for salmonella contamination. The FDA’s new proposed rule addresses none of these issues, letting industrial factory farms completely off the hook.
The USDA is already being sued for failing to enforce the “outdoor access” rule for free-ranging chickens. The agency allows egg farmers to enclose thousands of hens in giant, windowless pens as long as there is a door at one end with an outdoor “porch” or run large enough to hold just one to three percent of the pen’s chickens. The vast majority of these chickens never see the light of day, let alone a grassy meadow, and the only thing differentiating these organic, “free-ranging” chickens from those of standard industrial chicken farms is the feed.
Such conditions are a breeding ground for salmonella. But the FDA, in its corporate–loving wisdom, is focusing its concern on contact with wild birds. Conveniently, for those threatened by the organic whole foods movement, only truly free-ranging chickens ever have a chance of encountering a bird in the wild. To discourage such contact, the FDA recommends the use of noise cannons. Yes, scare off the wild birds with blasts of loud noise while simultaneously scaring your chickens straight into the pen! Other alternatives are the use of netting or structures with roofs like the porches mentioned above. Both would be cost prohibitive for the small or moderately sized organic chicken farmer. The overall result, and the obvious intent, of this “solution” would be to give the large organic egg producers an excuse for legally confining their chickens in industrial housing, effectively erasing the distinction between “free-ranging” and “factory housed”—except in the uninformed and deceived public’s mind.
What about the smaller, mom-and-pop egg producers? They can confine their chickens and cough up the money for meaningless “porches,” or risk breaking the law.
We can be thankful that at the time of this writing, the FDA’s restrictive rules were still in the “proposal” phase. New Leaf Market Co-op’s local, bulk eggs are still available, but they may not always be so.
The Co-op’s bulk eggs are supplied by up to 15 different local small farms. Most small farmers cannot afford the triple-compartmented sink, separate from their home kitchen, the Health Department requires for egg cleaning in order to sell their eggs to the public. So New Leaf does everyone a big favor by washing all the eggs in their certified food kitchen. New Leaf expressly takes on this added task in order to support our local farmers and to be able to offer us, the consumers, the freshest, healthiest eggs that would otherwise not be available.
Not all of New Leaf’s bulk eggs are organic (meaning the chickens are fed conventional rather than organic feed), although some are. But all of the eggs come from free-range chickens—chickens that scratch the ground, eat a varied diet that includes lots of bugs, and embody a more “organic lifestyle” than their unfortunate, penned-up cousins. And happy, bug-eating chickens make healthy eggs high in Omega 3’s.
If the FDA has its way, our local farmers would no longer be able to sell their eggs from free-ranging chickens to New Leaf. Let’s hope the pushback has been strong enough to prevent such foolishness. Stay tuned for updates, but one thing is clear: corporate bigwigs in government regulatory agencies will continue to chip away at your right to eat healthy, local and organic foods.