Newsletter January 2018: Cooped Up

Cooped Up

Happy New Years! I hope everyone had a great holiday season. We had a good time with family and eating delicious food. This time of year for us is a time of planning, rest, and recuperation. We’ve got a few exciting things in the works that we’ll let you all in on very soon.

Something important happened this past fall that is just starting to get attention now. The USDA is attempting to keep animal housing guidelines in the National Organic Program (NOP) loose. This is a big deal. The NOP had been working on standardizing animal welfare rules for years (these are the guidelines that regulate housing standards for animals). Currently, I believe that animal housing is a huge loophole in the Organic standard. The loophole is coming from vagueness in the wording; the NOP requires that an animal has access to the outdoors and enough space to “express their animal behavior.” To accommodate, large chicken houses (150,000-200,000 birds) simply added screened-in porches to count for outdoor access, and any ability for a chicken to move is considered expressing animal behavior. This is why you can find relatively cheap Organic chicken at the supermarket--it’s certified poultry raised in a confinement setting--something that breaks the spirit of Organic law and should break the letter too. There has been overwhelming support from Organic farmers for removing the vagueness and instituting very strict housing rules, but the USDA isn’t seeing it that way and is backtracking on potential changes to close the loopholes.

It’s hard not to see Big-Ag’s fingers in this. The Organic industry has shown that it’s not a fad and is continuing to grow each year. This means that there’s consumer confidence in the Organic seal. What would happen if these large chicken houses had to start allowing access to outdoors or giving birds more space to roam? They would not be able to meet these requirements. The USDA stated they were:

“…concerned that the…. final rule’s prescriptive codification of current industry practices in the dynamic, evolving marketplace could have the unintended consequence of preventing or stunting future market based innovation in response to rapidly evolving social and producer norms. Overly prescriptive regulation can discourage technological and social innovation… distorting or even preventing technological development.”

The entire point of Organic certification is to have “prescriptive regulation.” Certification itself insinuates a standard to be met. How can we make the standard easier to meet just so that large chicken suppliers can continue to meet them?

In contrast, here’s how our housing at Alden Hills works. Our beef herd is always outside with access to both shelter (wooded lanes) and pasture. Laying chickens are out on pasture and roost in movable coops at night. Their winter quarters are a heated coop that still has full access to the outdoors. Meat chickens and turkeys are raised in a hoop house brooder until 3-4 weeks old and then are moved to pasture where they are on fresh grass 24/7.  Why does this matter? Organic certification is a good thing but it’s not always enough. Certification is something that we do believe in at Alden Hills, but knowing your farmer and how your food is raised is equally important. These two things should work in tandem to ensure clean food for you and your family.  

Levi Powers