Photo: Saul Loeb, AFP / Getty Images
Organic Valley, the nation's largest name-brand marketer of organic eggs, is being accused of misleading consumers about the living conditions of its California hens, and for violating federal organic standards, according to a story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The bombshell was dropped by the California-based organic watchdog group Cornucopia Institute, which says the hens at the Petaluma Egg Farm were confined in screened "porches" and not allowed to forage naturally in pastures with direct sunlight.
"The federal organic standards clearly state that 'year-round access for all animals to the outdoors' is a requirement," says Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst with the group in a release on their website.
The Cornucopia Institute has filed a legal complaint with the USDA over the matter. The current dust-up may be prompted by the USDA's National Organic Standards Board meeting scheduled for the end of April, where the board is expected to address whether "porches" meet the definition of access to the outdoors.
Organic Valley does not refer to Petaluma Egg Farm by that name, but identifies the operation as Judy and Steve's Egg Farm, a tactic often used by large-scale agriculture producers.
"We call it Petaluma Poultry and Steve and Judy's," Theresa Marquez, Organic Valley spokesperson tells Slashfood. "Just because it was a big ag tactic doesn't mean it was our tactic. We have a transparency page where our position is very clear."
"I'm outraged Mark Kastel called our integrity into question. We do everything we can to have high quality standards. He doesn't like porches. I'm not sure I do either, but porches are actually part of the organic certification. In California, it's considered access to the outdoors. We were approved," Marquez says.
To be clear, eggs from Petaluma Egg Farm that fall under the Organic Valley brand are not labeled pastured. (Organic Valley eggs from Midwest producers are pasture-raised.) The California eggs are labeled cage-free and organic. The exception for the use of porches is addressed on the company's website:
"Our farmers are required to provide 1.75 square feet per bird indoors and five square feet per bird outdoors. An exception to this is made for our producer in California, where state veterinarians and the California Department of Agriculture strongly advocate that birds not have free-range outdoor access because of the risk of Avian Influenza transmission. Our California farmer-owner has screened houses with lots of natural light, and his outdoor access method is approved by his organic certifier, Oregon Tilth."
Petaluma Egg Farm also sells eggs under the brand names Rock Island, Uncle Eddie's, Judy's Family Farm and Gold Circle.
Cornucopia Institute has, in addition, filed a legal complaint with the USDA against Michigan-based Herbruck's Poultry Ranch, also for violating federal organic standards by confining hens in buildings.
"We'd like to paint this topic black and white, but the fact is, it's a very complex issue. We are trying to be straightforward and now we're being punished for it?' says Marquez. "The question is, how do we produce organic in a large enough commercial way that we can drive the price down and not be food for the elite?"