opinion

Outdoor porches protect organic hens

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Every day, nearly a million dozen organic eggs are sold across the nation. The expansion of organic egg production is a resounding success story for American agriculture — providing families with more options at the grocery store while supporting thousands of organic farmers throughout the nation.

That progress is at risk from a misguided proposal enacted in the closing hours of the Obama administration that would expose organic hens to predators and diseases. The rule has been delayed for further study, but it should be indefinitely suspended by the U.S. Department of Agriculture until the major animal health and food safety problems with the rule can be addressed. The proposal that was finalized would eliminate the use of outdoor porches for organic egg production. These screened-in porches, which are currently approved under the National Organic Program, protect organic hens.

The porches ensure that hens can have fresh air and sunlight, while protecting them from diseases and predators that can hurt or kill them.

Keeping hens safe is a major priority for all egg farmers. Two years ago, an outbreak of Avian Influenza carried by wild fowl devastated the egg industry, resulting in the loss of millions of hens and costing the federal government nearly $1 billion. This situation was tragic and must not be repeated.

Ironically, forcing organic egg farmers to expose their hens directly to the outdoors flies in the face of disease prevention best practices and would expose hens to exactly the same conditions that caused the Avian Influenza disaster. It directly contradicts the responsibility USDA bears to help farmers protect their hens, and ignores basic science.

That’s why it’s no surprise the rule has been opposed by a wide range of scientists and animal health experts. In public comments to USDA, the National Assembly of State Animal Health Officials (which represents state veterinarians) strongly opposed the rule, saying in part that the rule “forces farmers who otherwise embrace organic production ... to expose their hens to increased disease and predation risks and their eggs to increased food safety risk.”

And the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture urged USDA to suspend the rule, citing “significant animal health and biosecurity concerns” with the proposal.

In other words, outdoor porches protect organic hens. Eliminating the porches isn’t going to improve animal welfare — it’s going to result in more dead hens and more disease.

Our organization, the Michigan Agri-Business Association, has vigorously opposed this rule from its inception because it would deal a major setback to U.S. organic agriculture. It would force organic egg farmers to put their hens at risk for no reason. That simply isn’t acceptable.

This is a rule rooted entirely in politics, not science, and it needs to be fixed.

USDA has an opportunity to make the right decision for organic egg farmers and organic agriculture by delaying this misguided, last-minute rule indefinitely, until it can be revamped to follow basic animal health science and protect hens.

Chuck Lippstreu is communications director of the Michigan Agri-Business Association.

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