Over the past half-decade the pastured-food industry has grown rapidly in Northern California. Eco-conscious farmers and consumers have increasingly realized that allowing livestock — including cattle, sheep, and chicken — to graze on grasses and eat other foods found naturally in the environment is even better for the planet, and more humane, than most organic practices. In fact, some foodies and environmentalists call pastured food "beyond organic." Yet the Obama administration, facing intense pressure from Big Agriculture, is moving forward with new federal rules that could put some members of the pastured-food industry out of business.
Federal regulators are pushing the proposed new rules, contending that they will limit outbreaks of food-borne illnesses. But critics say the new regulations miss the mark, because there have been no widespread outbreaks linked to pastured food in the United States. They also fail to address the real culprit behind food-borne illnesses: factory farms, in which animals are forced to live in close confinement amid filthy and dangerous conditions that produce deadly pathogens, such as salmonella and E.coli 0157:H7.
The new rules also could decimate many mid-sized farms that produce organic fruit and vegetables. The rules call for a one-size-size-fits-all approach that applies the same sterilization standards for processing vegetables — such as bagged lettuce and spinach, which have been repeatedly linked to human illness — to growing organic vegetables, which has not been associated with outbreaks. And the rules will be expensive for organic vegetable farmers to adopt and thus could force them out of business, too. "These rules will not improve food safety," said Tom Willey, owner of T&D Willey Farms, an organic farm in Madera, California that supplies vegetables to Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market.
Some of the proposed regulations stem from the Food Safety Modernization Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in early 2011 following years of news stories about contaminated foods sickening thousands of people nationwide. The law designated the US Food and Drug Administration with establishing protocols to ensure public health and safety. But the FDA's proposed rules fail to adequately address factory farming and instead target organic and pastured foods.
And organic pastured-chicken-egg farming appears to face the most serious threat. In recent years, the pastured-egg industry has expanded throughout the Bay Area. Berkeley Bowl and Whole Foods, for example, now regularly stock pastured-egg brands such as Alexandre Kids, Marin Sun Farms, and Vital Farms.
The eggs come from chickens that spend most of their lives outdoors on pastureland, pecking on grasses and consuming bugs and other foods that chickens eat naturally. They're true "free-range" birds. Unfortunately, the term free-range has been corrupted in the US agriculture industry to include chickens whose only access to the outdoors is screened-in porches. And the new rules would effectively force pastured chickens indoors, too, and put an end to pastured-egg farming.
The FDA views contact between wild animals and egg-producing chickens as a threat to public health — even though the evidence of such a threat is scant. As a result, the agency is planning to require pastured-chicken farmers to build giant netting around and over their pastureland or erect huge walls surrounding their property to keep wild animals at bay. "It's silly," said Blake Alexandre, co-owner of Alexandre Kids organic pastured eggs, which is based in Crescent City, near the Oregon border. "When our chickens are outdoors grazing, they're exposed to everything."
At Alexandre Kids, the chickens graze on pastureland, sleep in a movable henhouse, and are protected from predators by sheep dogs. The Alexandres also rotate their chickens through their property during the year, so building giant netting or big walls would be unworkable.
"It would be impossible to adhere to these any of these guidelines in a pastured-chicken environment," said Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based environmental and consumer group that advocates for organic and pastured farming throughout the country. The Cornucopia Institute is also helping lead a nationwide campaign to stop the proposed new rules from going into effect. The group and other environmental organizations acknowledge, however, that they face an uphill battle, considering the influence that major agribusinesses wield in Washington. Many of those large corporations view organic and pastured food as threats to their bottom line.
If adopted, the new rules for pastured-chicken farms would apply to those with more than 3,000 egg-laying hens. Alexandre said his farm has about 2,500 hens and is approaching 3,000 because of consumer demand. And environmentalists say that small farms with fewer than 3,000 birds are not really exempt from the new rules either. FDA site inspectors could still shut down a small farm — without an appeals process — if they did not think it was taking adequate steps to keep pastured chickens separate from wild birds, Kastel said.
In lieu of netting or walls, pastured-chicken farmers also could meet the FDA guidelines by using sound cannons, which supposedly would scare away wild birds. But the sound cannons also would likely scare their chickens, too. "They're not going to be laying eggs if they're scared," Kastel noted. "It's a harebrained scheme based on no research at all."
The new rules also would create a major advantage for large organic producers who have come under heavy fire from environmentalists. Under federal law, broiler and egg-laying hens are not supposed to be called organic unless they have true access to the outdoors. But the US Department of Agriculture has allowed some large farms to use the organic label, including Judy's Family Farms — which is owned and operated by Petaluma Farms of Petaluma — even though their chickens live in cramped conditions, only have access to screened-in porches, and cannot really go outside. The Cornucopia Institute and other environmental groups have repeatedly complained about Judy's Family Farms, and have threatened to sue the USDA over the past year. But the FDA's proposed rules would apparently side with large producers like Judy's, whose screened-in porches keep its chickens separated from wild animals. In fact, under the proposed rules, Judy's practices — not pastured farming — could be codified as the desired way to raise organic chickens.
In many ways, the FDA's proposed regulations mark a resurgence of 20th-century farming practices and a rebuke to artisanal, farm-to-table eating that has become so popular in Northern California in the 21st century. In the FDA's view, nature is a threat to human health, and the best way to keep consumers safe is through sterilization and antibiotics — even though these types of factory-farming protocols have increasingly been linked to human illness and death, and the proliferation of so-called super bugs that are immune to antibiotics and kill 23,000 people each year.
But many environmentalists increasingly contend that true organic, pastured-food practices that embrace nature — rather than attempt to sterilize it — represent the better path to food safety. "Healthy, diverse ecology helps exclude pathogens," Willey argued, pointing to the Cornucopia Institute's recent white paper on the FDA's proposed rules, "Food Safety Theater," which includes references to research on food safety in organic farming and critiques on factory farms and food sterilization. "[The FDA's] emphasis on sterility just cripples diverse environments and makes them more susceptible to pathogens."
The Cornucopia Institute is urging those who wish to speak out against the FDA's proposed rules to sign a proxy letter that the group will then send to Washington, DC. The letter can be found at Cornucopia.org.
Clarification: The FDA's proposed regulations impacting pastured-egg farming stem from rule-making that is separate from the Food Safety Modernization Act.