- (Photo: Eigenproduktion)
Free range chicken has grown in popularity as more consumers have looked for meat products that are healthy and ethically raised. But now two government agencies, the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, are proposing a rule that would no longer allow free range chickens to be free range. The rule is being criticized by both organic food lovers, who say free range is healthier, and libertarians, who say it is just another example of government paternalism.
The new rule would require chickens from all farms with over 3,000 hens to be kept separate from all other wildlife. The rule is intended to reduce occurrences of Salmonella in eggs. Farms that sell their eggs directly to consumers would also be exempt.
Organic farmers claim it is impossible to keep their birds totally separate from all other wildlife without putting them in cages or keeping them indoors. Some say the rule will put them out of business, because they would no longer be able to sell their specialty product – organic, free range chickens and eggs – and would not be able to compete with the larger industrial farms that already keep their birds in cages.
Organic chicken and eggs has grown in popularity in recent years. Documentaries, such as "Food Inc." and "King Corn," and authors, such as Michael Pollan, have raised concerns about so-called industrial farming. The mass-produced animal products raised in confining environments raise health and ethical concerns, they say.
"You are what you eat eats," Pollan wrote in In Defense of Food. The diet of animals raised for food, along with the manner in which they are raised, impacts the nutritional value of the final products, he claimed.
Most supermarkets now carry eggs with the labels "cage free," "free range," or "organic" as a result of the concerns among many over how food is raised and the quality of the food that is consumed. California has even gone in the opposite direction as the proposed FDA/USDA rule and has passed an "ethical farming" law, which requires larger cages for chicken farming.
The Cornucopia Institute, an organization that promotes organic farming, views the proposed rule as part of a larger debate between small-scale organic farms and large-scale organic farms. Some of the new large farms, Cornucopia argues, stretch the definition of "organic" by barely doing enough for their chickens to qualify as organic. To qualify, chickens need "access to outdoors." This could simply mean that their cage doors are opened a few hours a day and they have access to an open porch. The chickens do not even need to leave their cages to qualify. This is far different from the organic farms where chickens roam freely and peck at the ground for food.
The FDA/USDA proposal would see the federal government enter into that debate and tip the scales in favor of the large-scale organic (or "organic," as Cornucopia puts it) farms.
"This is collusion between two Obama administration agencies to significantly and permanently weaken the integrity of the organic standards," Mark Kastel, codirector of The Cornucopia Institute, said. "By giving the OK to use covered porches as 'outdoor access,' and putting additional burdens on producers with legitimate outdoor runs or pasture, the recommendations in this food safety document decisively tilt the playing field to industrial-scale producers."