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Originally published Monday, April 18, 2011 at 9:49 PM

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Organic-egg coop misleading consumers, watchdog says

A California farm that provides eggs under the Organic Valley co-op label gives its hens required access to the outdoors by confining them in screened "porches" with a roof and a floor and not allowing them to forage naturally in pastures with direct sunlight, says the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit farm policy group based in Cornucopia, Wis.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

MILWAUKEE — A Wisconsin farmer-owned cooperative — the nation's largest name-brand marketer of organic eggs — is misleading consumers about the living conditions of some of its hens and violating federal organic standards, according to a watchdog group.

A California farm that provides eggs under the Organic Valley co-op label gives its hens required access to the outdoors by confining them in screened "porches" with a roof and a floor and not allowing them to forage naturally in pastures with direct sunlight, says the Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit farm policy group based in Cornucopia, Wis.

While federal organic standards require outdoor access and direct sunlight to promote hen health and natural behavior, the standards don't specifically define the outdoors.

That definition has been hotly debated, as consumer demand for organic eggs has increased, and the industry has grown to meet the demand. Several large organic egg farms, including Organic Valley's Petaluma Egg Farm in Petaluma, Calif., address the outdoor access requirement with screened porches. The porches may be approved by independent organic certifiers, but they don't meet the spirit and intent of organic standards, according to the Cornucopia Institute, which advocates for family-scale farming.

An expert citizen panel that advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture on organic standards is scheduled to meet at the end of April to consider a clarification that would end the sun porch loophole and clearly put the Organic Valley co-op farm in California in noncompliance, if adopted by the USDA. The proposed clarification states "enclosed spaces that have solid roofs overhead, such as those typically described as 'porches,' do not meet the definition of outdoor access."

The Cornucopia Institute filed a legal complaint with the USDA, seeking a formal investigation of La Farge, Wis.-based CROPP, the nation's largest organic cooperative, "for willfully marketing eggs produced on a farm that does not comply with the organic standards."

The co-op sells organic eggs, dairy products and other food products from 1,617 farms across the country, including Petaluma Egg Farm in California. Author Michael Pollan referred to Petaluma Eggs in his best-seller, "The Omnivore's Dilemma," as an example of "supermarket pastoral" — industrial-scale agribusiness masquerading as part of the good food movement.

Petaluma Egg Farm has been selling eggs under the Organic Valley label since 2009, three years after Pollan's book was published. But Organic Valley refers to the farm by a different name on its website. When Organic Valley announced that Petaluma was joining the co-op, it identified the farm in a news release as Judy and Steve's Egg Farm. The owners' full names were not listed.

In an interview Friday, Organic Valley spokeswoman Elizabeth Horton acknowledged the farm's name is Petaluma Egg Farm owned by Judy and Steve Mahrt, and that Judy and Steve's Egg Farm is a brand. But she defended the farm, saying it meets organic standards and has maintained organic certification through an independent certifier.

When consumers buy organic eggs, they expect them to come from chickens allowed to roam in pastures, where they can display natural, instinctive behaviors such as foraging and scratching. They don't expect chickens confined to "sun porches," Mark Kastel, senior farm policy analyst with the Cornucopia Institute, said. He questioned the integrity of the independent certifier that inspects Petaluma Egg Farm.

Last September, the Cornucopia Institute gave Petaluma a poor review when it rated individual organic egg farms across the country in its report, "Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture." The report contrasted exemplary management practices at family-scale farms with abuses at "factory farms" — including Hillandale Farms, an Iowa egg producer implicated in a widespread salmonella outbreak last year.

Organic Valley secures most of its eggs from family-scale farm members that follow organic standards, including providing legitimate access to the outdoors for humane reasons, Kastel said. He said Cornucopia had been a strong advocate for Organic Valley but believes the co-op is cutting corners in California to fill demand for eggs.

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"Sadly, it appears that upper management of CROPP, in their zeal to capitalize on the marketplace cachet of the 'local' food movement, has compromised the values that Organic Valley was founded on," Kastel said.

Organic Valley has strict standards for egg farms, requiring them to provide at least 5 square feet of pasture per bird — more than twice the 2-feet-per-bird requirement in the proposed "outdoor access" clarification being considered by the USDA advisory board.

Kastel alleges that Organic Valley gave Petaluma Egg Farm an exception from its own strict standards because it wanted an industrial-scale egg farm that could produce organic eggs for West Coast consumers.

Organic Valley's website says it granted the exception to Petaluma because of health concerns in California that chickens with outdoor access could promote the spread of avian flu from wild birds.

Organic standards allow farms to temporarily deny outdoor access for health concerns. But Kastel says that there's no government recommendation that California chickens be confined for health reasons, and that many other California egg farms allow outdoor access.

A Petaluma Egg Farm spokesman said Friday that the farm was recently recertified organic by independent certifier Oregon Tilth Certified Organic. He said the farm meets all current organic standards.

"We want to assure our consumers that we take the organic certification process very seriously," Organic Valley CEO George Siemon said in a prepared statement.

"All our farmer-owners are certified-organic and comply with the National Organic Standards," Siemon said. "Petaluma Egg Farm, in particular, has been and remains fully certified by Oregon Tilth Certified Organic at all times we have marketed its eggs. We regret that these kinds of accusations not only hurt consumers and the organic industry at large, but also hurt all organic farmers."

Kastel of Cornucopia Institute said when producers adopt industrial-scale practices that fail to meet the intent of organic standards, ethical family farmers are at a competitive disadvantage in the organic marketplace, and consumers are misled.

He said Cornucopia is challenging "corporate agribusinesses" that want to weaken organic standards and legitimize "factory farm" egg production.

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