Is Organic Valley Bending the Rules of What's 'Organic'?

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eggsNo doubt you've seen Organic Valley products at your local Whole Foods or supermarket. In fact, the cheese, milk, and eggs from this farmer-owned cooperative are the only organic dairy products offered at the tiny grocery store near my apartment where I am forced to do my shopping.

I buy Organic Valley because it's the best option available to me. But the recent news about how it's allegedly misleading consumers about the living conditions of some of its hens and violating federal organic egg standards has me in a panic.

The farm at the center of the controversy is Petaluma Egg Farm/Judy and Steve's Egg Farm in California, which confines its hens in screened "sun porches" with a roof and a floor. Organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute says that by not allowing the hens to forage naturally in pastures with direct sunlight, the farm is violating federal organic standards, which clearly state that "year-round access for all animals to the outdoors" is a requirement.

So, in effect, Cornucopia is saying that Petaluma is no better than a factory farm; as a result, it's filed a legal complaint with the USDA.

But Organic Valley is defending its farmers' practices to the hilt and denying the charges that it's marketing eggs produced on a farm that doesn't comply with organic standards. While it admits the use of porches is controversial, the company says that in California, this practice may be approved by independent organic certifiers. And in this case, it most certainly was:

Our farmers are required to provide 1.75 square feet per bird indoors and five square feet per bird outdoors. An exception to this is made for our producer in California, where state veterinarians and the California Department of Agriculture strongly advocate that birds not have free-range outdoor access because of the risk of Avian Influenza transmission. Our California farmer-owner has screened houses with lots of natural light, and his outdoor access method is approved by his organic certifier, Oregon Tilth.

So it looks like the real villain in the story isn't Organic Valley; rather, it's the USDA, which allows a sun porch loophole in the first place. (Incidentally, this loophole may end after the expert citizen panel that advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on organic standards meets at the end of the month.)

Do you think it's acceptable that "organic" eggs come from hens that are confined to sun porches?

 

Image via marcleh/Flickr

food, food safety, organics