Arrow-right Camera


Uncaged chickens

Industry debates significance of outdoor access in organic labeling

YELM, Wash. – The choir of clucking from thousands of Rhode Island red chickens inside a Stiebrs Farms henhouse creates such a din that it’s hard to hear anything else. A few dozen of them amble down ramps onto a grassy lawn, where they peck at the ground and roll in the dirt, an instinct farmers call “dusting.”

These are the lucky chickens, the ones certified organic that do not spend their lives in cages. Stiebrs Farms decided that when national organic rules called for “access to the outdoors,” that meant big doors and grassy lawns.

Some organic chicken farms do not see it that way, and a fight is brewing over what exactly “access to the outdoors” means when it comes to chickens used for organic eggs and meat.

“There’s huge lobbying going on from industrial agriculture trying to force the NOSB (National Organic Standards Board) to get rid of the concept of any outdoor access,” said Goldie Caughlan, nutrition-education manager at PCC Natural Markets in Seattle and a former member of that board.

The NOSB, an advisory board of retailers, consumers, producers and others with an interest in organic food, makes recommendations to an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that issues final rules on everything from organic corn to honey to milk.

Stiebrs – which has 450,000 hens, about 125,000 of them organic – recently added extra doors to a couple organic houses to coax more hens outside.

It’s important to consumers and customers like PCC, said Kaisa Kuykendall, granddaughter of Stiebrs Farms’ founders and head of sales, marketing and customer relations. It also creates work for the farm, because workers have to round up the chickens before dark.

Some people do not like that the National Organic Standards Board is looking into the matter.

Steve Kopperud, a lobbyist whose firm’s clients include the National Renderers Association and the Animal Health Institute, wrote at in March that the National Organic Standards Board should not consider “animal-welfare” standards. He thinks organic should mean only an absence of man-made chemicals.

“Since by federal law no company can make humaneness or safety claims based on production practice, how better to try and play to the Whole Foods crowd than by promoting your ‘animal welfare’ standards as part of the organic program?” he wrote.

James Barton, a veterinarian with the American Association of Avian Pathologists, told the National Organic Standards Board’s livestock committee last fall that raising chickens inside is better for their health.

“Exposure to insects and earthworms can facilitate the transfer of internal and external parasites … as well as bacterial and viral infections,” he said.