When you buy organic eggs at the grocery store, there's an expectation that those eggs came from chickens that had space to run around in the outdoors—and that's not just an assumption about the quality of organic food in the United States. That's the legal definition of an organic egg, according to the US Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Eggs that are labeled "organic" are legally supposed to "come from uncaged hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors."
But today, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) has filed a lawsuit against the USDA arguing that the legal definition of organic isn't evenly applied across the poultry industry. The part of the definition that's specifically coming under scrutiny is the word "outdoors." According to some bigger poultry farmers, "outdoors" means screened in. "It's kind of like your screened porch on your house," Greg Herbruck, president of Herbruck's Poultry Ranch in Saranac, MI, which has 2.2 million hens, told National Public Radio. "When you go out there, you're outside. You're protected from the rain. In this case, we protect [the chickens] from disease and from predators."
However, members of the OTA, which represents smaller organic farmers, don't think "screened in" counts as outdoors—and in 2016, the USDA agreed. The regulations, which were implemented at the end of the Obama administration, said that "farmers must provide each hen with at least 2 square feet of outdoor space. It defines outdoors as an area in the open air with at least 50 percent soil" with no sold walls or roofs attached to the living space. In other words, not a porch.
When the Trump administration took power, however, they stayed the implementation of all government regulations, including this one that protected the welfare of organic livestock. This is why large farms that keep hens screened in are able to call their operations "organic," even though that's not what the Obama-era regulations state. And in this new lawsuit, the OTA alleges that the reputation of organic food is at risk because what is happening on the farms is not what is stated in the regulations, and the smaller farmers who are giving their chickens enough space are being penalized by government inaction.
Until this lawsuit gets resolved, if you're concerned about getting eggs from chickens that have enough room to roam—without the confines of a porch—consider getting eggs labeled free-range at the grocery store rather than organic, making friends with the folks selling eggs at your local farmer's market and learning how they treat their chickens, or, if you're truly bold, raising your own hens.