On Tuesday, July 23, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a draft guidance for organic egg producers (and other farmers who allow outdoor access for their chickens) to comply with its salmonella food safety rule, which went into effect in 2010. The draft guidance is in a Question and Answer format. The public comment period is sixty days, and the FDA is seeking input from organic industry stakeholders.
• Published studies show scientific evidence that confining chickens to battery cages, large flock sizes, infestation with flies and rodents, and forced molting (a practice banned in organics) are the real risk factors for salmonella contamination. Yet rather than address these documented risk factors, which are common on non-organic, large-scale confinement operations ("factory farms"), the FDA is focusing on outdoor access and making it harder for organic farmers, who afford their chickens access to the outdoors, to comply with FDA regulations. If the FDA were truly concerned with consumer health, it would phase out cages and large flock sizes.
• Countries in the European Union do not limit outdoor access and require at least 43 ft2 per bird of outdoor space. These countries are having great success with reducing salmonella rates without interfering with outdoor access.
• Wild birds were never addressed in the FDA's salmonella rule, and studies have not consistently shown that farms where hens come in contact with wild birds are more likely to have salmonella contamination. This makes the FDA's guidance document focusing on reducing contact with wild birds questionable, as wild birds present a low risk factor.
• The FDA's egg safety regulations clearly prohibit its enforcement staff from interpreting the rules to interfere with farmers complying with USDA's national organic standards. Those standards require "access to the outdoors" for all organic livestock. According to the Cornucopia Institue, this guidance will add unnecessary burdens for producers with outdoor access to comply with the regulations (possibly making true outdoor access economically and logistically impracticable).
• The USDA's National Organic Program has collaborated with the FDA in promulgating this draft guidance. The Cornucopia Institute has already been investigating filing a lawsuit against the USDA for its refusal to enforce the Organic Foods Production Act, failing to carry out the will of Congress. Instead they have allowed the largest players in the organic egg industry to confine as many as 100,000 birds in a single building without legitimate outdoor access. The USDA has permitted small porches, that fit only 1-3% of the birds - many of these structures have screen walls, floors and ceilings - and has suggested that these fulfill the legal requirement for "access to the outdoors."
• Family-scale organic farmers are placed at a competitive disadvantage by the USDA abdicating its legal responsibility to enforce the organic law. Consumers, who for good reason believe organic chickens are being cared for in a more humane manner, equating to healthier and more nutritious eggs, are taken advantage of. Preventing unfair business practices, and defrauding consumers, is the reason Congress passed the Organic Foods Production Act in 1990.
• The FDA salmonella guidance for organic farmers will likely tip the scales even further, advantaging an industrial-scale agriculture sector at the expense of family farmers.
The Cornucopia Institute will continue to carefully review the draft guidance, especially for its impact on organic egg producers who provide meaningful outdoor access to laying hens.