FDA Approves “Prison Yard” Access for Hens

Posted by Liz Hallinan, ALDF Litigation Fellow on October 3, 2013

harvest-home-hen-article-image2I am often asked by friends how they can choose products that support responsible agriculture. The most common question I get is whether “USDA organic” products are better for animal welfare. I have always answered that no, organic is meaningless when it comes to how animals are treated on farms. Turns out, I am wrong.

According to the USDA’s National Organic Program, to be granted the seal of “USDA organic,” farmers must provide for the “health and natural behavior of animals”, including

“year-round access for all animals to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight, suitable to the species, its stage of life, the climate, and the environment.”

This is definitely an improvement over typical non-organic factory farms, where farmers can house and treat their animals however the farmer prefers. However, USDA has not clarified what this outdoor access for organic farm animals means. Do the animals really get to see the sky or touch the soil?

Recently, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) decided that they would provide descriptions of acceptable outdoor access used for organic egg-laying hens as “guidance” for farmers. Unfortunately, the first description, titled “Indoor Area with Porch,” stated that outdoor access for hens could be an enclosed porch with a solid roof and a floor that is “often concrete.”

The natural behavior of hens includes scratching and dust bathing in the dirt and foraging through vegetation—something they cannot do through a concrete floor.  A covered, fenced-in porch is far from the bucolic, open space pasture that many egg consumers believe exists for organic chickens.

Luckily, animal advocates and consumers can be a voice for farm animal welfare. FDA’s guidance descriptions, as with all federal agency proposals, must be vetted by the public through an open comment period before becoming law. Any individual or group is able to submit their approval or disapproval for any agency proposal at www.regulations.gov. Although the government agency is not required to adopt any public stance on the law, they are required to consider and respond to all comments.

Last week, ALDF’s legal team, along with partner group The Cornucopia Institute, submitted our objections. We demonstrated that FDA’s description is not consistent with the existing law on organic standards. Moreover, we provided FDA with evidence that larger outdoor spaces for hens, with access to both sunlight and soil, provide greater protection for the health of the animals and, through their eggs, of consumers.

Ultimately, however, setting housing standards for organic animals is not the job of the FDA. Let’s hope that this overreach by the FDA, and the outcry from animal and food groups, prompts the USDA to set even higher standards for animal welfare under the organic program. Until then, animal advocates will need to monitor agricultural standards to best inform their friends, and themselves, on how to make the biggest impact for farm animal welfare—with their consumer dollars.


One thought on “FDA Approves “Prison Yard” Access for Hens

  1. Kevin Fulton says:

    Good blog Liz!! I agree with your points and it’s the interpretation of these organic regulations that can get fuzzy and create loopholes for industrial scale operations. That can make it hard for organic farmers like myself to compete. I believe that is why humane certifications have merit.