Which Came First- The Organic Chicken Or The Organic CAFO?

Which Came First- The Organic Chicken Or The Organic CAFO?

That’s an easy one. The Organic Chicken came first. 

The Organic Chicken has been around for thousands of years, long before the word “Organic” was used. These chickens explored outside, hunted and pecked, scratched and rolled, and flapped their wings. They were curious and social. They lived in close association with human beings.

In this third letter taking a hard look at the bitter legal battles with the USDA since the beginning of the National Organic Program, we look at chickens. Oh, dear!

Real Organic chickens on pasture, where a chicken can be a chicken.

We have an idea of when the Organic chicken CAFO came.

In 2002.

That is the date of the battle between The Country Hen and their certifier, Massachusetts Independent Certification Inc. (operating as NOFA Mass Organic Certification). MICI was founded in the 1980s. 2002 was the first year of USDA certification, and MICI was in the process of separating (in the friendliest way) from NOFA MASS to become an independent certifier. MICI renamed themselves Baystate Organic Certifiers in 2003. That is how I will refer to them in this letter.

The Country Hen came to Baystate for certification. They were turned down because their chickens didn’t get outdoor access. It was a simple (though painful) decision. It was painful because The Country Hen would have been the certifying agency’s biggest client. But the Baystate certification committee felt there was no way that the chicken CAFO could qualify. Outdoor access was clearly required by law. Baystate issued a Denial of Certification for The Country Hen.

The Country Hen appealed to the National Organic Program, saying that they were PLANNING to give outdoor access sometime soon when they built the first of their “chicken porches”.

One day later, Bay State got word from the USDA that they MUST grant certification to The Country Hen. The Baystate denial of certification was overturned in the fastest decision in USDA history. For the better part of a year after that, The Country Hen sold their eggs as being certified by Baystate (MICI) when, in fact, they were not. 

Baystate continued to refuse to certify them, despite the USDA decision.

“The porches are nonsense. The USDA allowed this ridiculous decision. We got railroaded by the NOP. Our whole organization decided it wasn’t right, and we weren’t going to allow it. We won’t certify a chicken facility that does not allow all of its birds access to the outdoors.  Every poultry operation we certify has their birds outside.

  • Don Franczyk, Director of Bay State Organics

Idalou Egg Ranch in Texas is certified organic by CCOF, without providing hens real outdoor access.

There are many more sad details that I won’t go into. But the big take-home message is that this action set the precedent for allowing “chicken porches” to substitute for “outdoor access” in the USDA organic certification. A chicken porch is a part of a hen facility where a solid wall has been replaced by a mesh screen. It is a screened room visited by a small percent of the chickens in the facility.

As Jesse Laflamme of Pete and Gerry’s eggs has said, “They tacked a little tiny porch on the side of them, where a fraction of a fraction of the hens might be able to go out at one time, if they could actually find their way to it.”

American agriculture has embraced confinement livestock raising. This means that animals are confined in large numbers in a small area. They stand around and are fed grain. These are called Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. I call them animal detention centers. 

Even human detention centers in America give outdoor access.

“Inmates’ right to engage in outdoor exercise is clearly established under the law, and this right applies even when inmates are housed in solitary confinement. Indeed, courts have held that the right to outdoor exercise is a virtual necessity when inmates are kept in continuous segregation.”
     – American Psychological Association

A third of the diet of a chicken can come from pasture and insects, making a more nutritious egg or meat.

A third of the diet of a chicken can come from pasture and insects, making a more nutritious egg or meat.CAFOs are not a rarity in American agriculture. Jonathan Saffron Foer has said, “99.9% of the animals that we eat in America come from factory farms, whose mission is to remove farmers, and to remove nature, from farming.”

Oh, and did I mention the climate? CAFOs are a major cause of climate disaster.
CAFOs are not nice places. But they are profitable.
The owners can make money, but the animals, workers, and eaters pay the price. The animals lead abused lives. The workers work in a dangerous place for very low wages. The eaters get nutritionally inferior food.


Jonathan Safran Foer, author of We Are The Weather.

“There are twenty-three billion chickens living on Earth at any given time. Their combined mass is greater than that of all other birds on our planet. Humans eat sixty-five billion chickens per year.”

“We do not know for sure if animal agriculture is a leading cause of climate change or the leading cause of climate change.”

“We know for sure that we cannot address climate change without addressing animal agriculture.”

-Jonathan Safran Foer in We Are The Weather.

Michael Pollan at a panel discussion called “In Defense Of Food.”

“We are addicted to cheap food. And the pressures to make food as cheap as possible are just fierce in this country. And that is the reason that we exploit farmworkers and that is the reason that meat animals are treated the way they are treated, and down the line….Food is not ‘cheap.’ It’s dishonestly priced because it assumes undocumented workers being exploited, and it assumes animal abuse.”

-Michael Pollan in a public conversation with Kathleen Merrigan

The first “certified organic” operation to substitute “chicken porches” for outdoor access.

“The products all lie. There are images of farms and pastoral images on the packages that really are coming from feed lots. When the system gets this long and this opague, its very hard to know what kind of system you are supporting, and consumers are deeply confused.”

-Michael Pollan in his talk “Deep Agriculture.”

That is, unless the products coming out of a pasture-based system can be recognized by consumers. Informed people don’t want to buy food coming from CAFOs. Yes, many will pay more for better food, less cruelty, less worker abuse, less climate disaster.

Until now, those people have turned to the organic label to find such food. Are they getting what they are being promised?

Certified organic chickens at The Country Hen in Massachusetts.

The National Organic Program (NOP) regulations state that: “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.” 

They go on to require: “Continuous total confinement of any animal indoors is prohibited.”

Of all the ways in which the USDA has degraded the organic label, chicken CAFOs might be the worst. At this time, chicken confinement facilities with up to a million birds are being certified as organic. Apparently, the defining characteristic that makes them “organic” is the feeding of “USDA Certified Organic” grain. Much of that “organic” grain is imported from Turkey or South America, and its “organicness” is dubious, at best. These birds get no actual outside access.

How have we wandered so far?

And real organic is much more than substituting one input for another. It is a system that embraces biological complexity in order to gain biological stability and nutritional quality.

If there is one thing that everyone in the organic community agrees on, it is that eggs from large CAFOs are not organic. And yet over 75% of the USDA certified organic eggs sold in America come from these large confinement operations.

The only so-called “members of the organic community” who advocate for such CAFOs are the CAFO owners. Well, and the Coalition For Sustainable Organics, one of two major lobbyists for hydros.

What is the hydroponic lobby doing in a partnership with the chicken CAFOs? This started when Coalition leader Theo Crisantes testified for the hydroponic producers to the Senate Ag Committee. Crisantes’ testimony disparaged the NOSB for concerning itself with “outlier issues” like the chicken porches. These are not outlier issues. These outlier issues are how a billion-dollar poultry industry is (poorly) regulated.

There is no disagreement in the organic community about CAFOs. They are not organic.

Calvinball cartoon. They just make the rules up as they go.

And so, the entire organic movement worked very hard for over a decade to reform the National Organic Program on chickens. We spent years to achieve a compromise called the “Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices” (OLPP) rule. I will just call it the Organic Animal Welfare reform. After the NOSB passed their recommendation on to the NOP, the NOP labored and finally passed it on to the USDA, which labored and labored.

The Organic Animal Welfare reform was opposed in Congress by a bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Ag committee. How often do Pat Roberts and Mitch McConnell agree with Debbie Stabenow in defining organic? They all signed a letter calling for a stop to the OLPP. And how did they get the right to define organic for the world? And why would we give them that right?

The USDA  finally approved the Organic Animal Welfare reform (OLPP) in the last days of the Obama administration. 

And on the first day of the Trump administration, his new USDA pulled it for further study.

Four months later, the OLPP was completely rejected.

“But this latest USDA decision codifies the big rift between the majority of certified organic producers, who follow the spirit of the law, and the fewer, much larger producers who seek to gain market advantage, primarily by continuously confining animals that are required by law to have outdoor access. The USDA’s ruling preserves the status quo, and fails to establish the USDA Organic label as the “gold standard” for organics that OLPP promised.”

    – Civil Eats

There are now two lawsuits against the USDA. One from the National Organic Coalition and one from the Organic Trade Association. Both are trying to force the USDA to implement the Organic Animal Welfare reform. Perhaps we will win in court, but if the past is any indication, we will face an uphill battle in Congress afterward. Congress tends to simply change the law when such upsets happen. Or the USDA simply stalls and drags their feet on implementation for years and years.

We try to bring about USDA reform, but we seem to be blocked at every turn. That is why the Real Organic Project exists. We are the organic movement.

Dave Chapman
Executive Director / dave@realorganicproject.org
Real Organic Project / realorganicproject.org

Chickens on Nick’s Organic Farm in Maryland.

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“The basic aim of a democratic regime is to curb the use of arbitrary powers–especially of government and economic institutions–against its citizens.” – Cornel West in Race Matters.