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What makes eggs ‘organic’? It depends on who you ask

The U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized a plan under the Obama administration that required chickens laying organic eggs to have access to soil, not just enclosures attached to hen houses. But before the rule could be implemented under the Trump administration it was reversed, raising questions over how consumers expect the birds to be raised. NewsHour Weekend's Megan Thompson reports.

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  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Will Harris's family has been farming this land in southwestern Georgia for five generations.

  • WILL HARRIS:

    Hear that noise? A very soothing noise to me

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Here at White Oak Pastures, Harris raises ten kinds of animals, including about four thousand egg-laying chickens that graze outdoors. The eggs are laid in mobile hen houses, then picked up by hand, cleaned, and checked for impurities using a high-powered light. They are sold as pasture-raised and organic directly to consumers and to food service companies at more than $5 dollars a dozen. At White Oak's farm store, Harris says it's a premium product.

  • WILL HARRIS:

    We're not talking about feeding the world like this. You know the world wants cheap food. You got some people that want a Mercedes, and some people that want a Hyundai. It's no good and bad, It's just what you want.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The egg operation at White Oak Pastures is what many people imagine when they think of organic eggs, uncaged hens pecking and scratching in an outdoor field, eating feed grown without pesticides. Now have a look at Bob Beauregard's hens.

  • BOB BEAUREGARD:

    These birds have 1.5 square feet per bird, in all our production facilities, we set a standard at that…

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Beauregard is the general manager for an egg farm in central Massachusetts with about 80,000 chickens. It's called the Country Hen. And its eggs, too, are deemed organic.

  • BOB BEAUREGARD:

    The birds are beautiful. They're singing, they're happy.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    To be certified as an "organic" egg by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, the chickens need to be cage-free, fed an organic diet grown without pesticides, managed without antibiotics and hormones, and have seasonal access to the outdoors. The Country Hen checks all those boxes. But instead of letting its birds roam on pasture, the Country Hen provides outdoor access for its birds on covered porches, though it was too cold on the day we visited for any chickens to be outside.

  • BOB BEAUREGARD:

    It's worked very well. We've been very transparent about our production methods, right on our box it says sunlit barns and porches.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The company was originally denied organic certification when the organic rules were first implemented in 2002. The porch was not deemed outdoor space by the USDA. But after an appeal, the Country Hen was told that the porch did comply and that one decision about one small farm had big repercussions in the industry.

  • BOB BEAUREGARD:

    We never had the intention to create any kind of a loophole or, we were talking about our farm individually and what worked best for here.

  • JESSE LAFLAMME:

    I think USDA at the time took pity on their situation and nobody ever imagined what would happen with the scale.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Jesse Laflamme is the co-owner and chief executive farmer of Pete & Gerry's in nearby New Hampshire. It's one of the biggest organic egg producers in the country. He says once big factory-style farms — like this one in Michigan — started building porches for their hens, the market became flooded with eggs labeled organic that most consumers would consider far from that.

  • JESSIE LAFLAMME:

    Some enterprising very large egg producers saw an opportunity to bend the rules if you will or take advantage of unclear rules, ambiguous rules and build to scale.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Pete & Gerry's raises its own hens, but also partners with 120 smaller farms. In its advanced processing facility, it washes, packs, and ships 1.3 million eggs a day. While it was also too cold on the day we visited, all Pete & Gerry's hens can spend time outdoors on soil when the weather allows. And that's important to people who buy organic eggs. A 2017 Consumer Reports survey found 83 percent "…think it's highly important that organic eggs come from hens that were able to go outdoors." And that, says Laflamme, means birds roaming on soil, not confined to porches.

  • JESSIE LAFLAMME:

    This is just so misaligned with what consumers expect of organic. It's going to damage the organic seal and not just in the egg category. I'm talking about all types of organic products. This is a fundamental issue of consumer expectation of organic and trust.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    After ten years of lobbying by Pete & Gerry's and other organic companies, public hearings, and a recommendation from an expert panel, the USDA proposed an update to the organic livestock and poultry practices rule in April 2016. It included a requirement that organic chickens have contact with actual soil, not simply outdoor porches. The USDA said the rules would "better satisfy consumer expectations that organic livestock meet a uniform and verifiable animal welfare standard."

    In response to the proposed rule requiring outdoor access, there were nearly 7,000 comments submitted to the USDA, including from three of the largest egg producers in the country: Cal-Maine, Rose Acre Farms, and Herbruck Poultry.

    All three declined PBS Newshour Weekend's interview requests. But they wrote in a joint comment to the USDA that the proposed rules "are a thinly veiled attempt to promote small farms and exclude larger farms…" and "… conflict with scientifically proven animal welfare practices."

  • DR. JOHN GLISSON:

    My name is John Glisson.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Dr. John Glisson is the vice president of research for the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, a trade group representing the poultry industry. He spent 30 years studying poultry diseases as a professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Georgia. And he opposes the rule requiring outdoor access because he says it puts chickens at risk of contracting diseases.

  • DR. JOHN GLISSON:

    Our industry knows that's disastrous. We can't do that. It goes against everything we've learned for the last 70 years.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    We spoke with Glisson in Atlanta, at the largest poultry trade show in the world. He says the scale of the industry — which produces more than 92 billion eggs a year — has been made possible because of advancements in biosecurity — protecting chickens from pathogens like salmonella, which is spread by rodents, and diseases like avian influenza, which is spread by wild birds.

  • DR. JOHN GLISSON:

    One of the main principles is we have to separate, completely separate domestic poultry from wild birds. We're not against organic. But organic has to be done according to the scientific principles of biosecurity and food safety or else we're going backwards.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    While Glisson acknowledges that consumers might want eggs from a chicken that is raised with outdoor access, he says there's not a scientific basis for it.

  • DR. JOHN GLISSON:

    It's perception based. There's a market for saying that birds were outdoors, there's a profitable market for that. It doesn't help the birds.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Jesse Laflamme insists the complaint by Dr. Glisson and other egg producers – that outdoor access for egg-laying hens will lead to outbreaks of diseases like avian flu – is not supported by recent events.

    In 2014 and 2015 an avian flu outbreak affected more than 50 million chickens, turkeys, and ducks, but the USDA acknowledged that fewer than 9,000 of those birds were kept outdoors.

  • JESSE LAFLAMME:

    The question is what percentage of those birds were outside? Basically none. And so the question is where in reality is the risk?

    The debate over the proposed USDA rule requiring outdoor access for organic, egg-laying chickens appeared to be settled in January 2017, when the rule was finalized, and then there was a political change.

  • PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP:

    I, Donald John Trump

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Under the new administration, the USDA withdrew the rule determining that it didn't have the authority under existing law to mandate animal welfare conditions.

    Greg Ibach is an under secretary at the USDA, overseeing the organic program. He says if the rule had been implemented, it would have raised the price of organic eggs and changed the rules in a program that he says is working well.

  • GREG IBACH:

    Consumers have really given the organic program an extreme vote of confidence over the years. We've seen a growth in organic purchases and organic sales grow consistently across all areas of the organic industry. If we keep moving the goalposts, neither consumers nor farmers will understand what USDA regulates to.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    But organic producers like Jesse Laflamme are not giving up yet on updating the rules as to what makes an egg organic.

  • JESSE LAFLAMME:

    We didn't anticipate that they would really kind of stoop this low and pull the rule altogether. And in response OTA would have to sue.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The Organic Trade Association, or OTA, a group representing organic farmers and companies, including Pete & Gerry's, sued the USDA, arguing that the withdrawal violated the process in place for rulemaking. Back in Georgia, Will Harris says his farming practices are driven by what customers want – not USDA rules.

  • WILL HARRIS:

    For me, it's not all about the USDA certification. We go way beyond that. The more consumers that demand food to be raised with higher animal welfare, more sustainable farm practices, the more of us will respond to that and do it.

  • BOB BEAUREGARD:

    Being completely transparent with your customers is really what's most important.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    The Country Hen in Massachusetts is also moving beyond the USDA's standard. It's decided that it's going to change the way it raises eggs even though the USDA rule has been withdrawn. It's expanding its operations and building new facilities without porches, that allow hens outdoors, on soil.

  • BOB BEAUREGARD:

    I do believe that the standards need to be more consistent. That's what I believe. So we're going to transition our way right into that. So at the end of the day, we will comply with the rule whether it gets written into the register or not.

  • MEGAN THOMPSON:

    Though he acknowledges that there's a risk in letting his birds outside. He says it's what people want.

  • BOB BEAUREGARD:

    They have so many choices at the shelf, so our mind needs to be changed based on what our consumers are looking for.

Aerial photo of Michigan farm courtesy of Cornucopia Institute.

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