Under current USDA organic regulations, not all organic eggs are created equal.
Large-scale poultry producers are able to cut corners in ways that don’t align with one of the core principles of organic: that “animals are able to exhibit their natural behaviors,” says Melissa Hughes, general counsel for Organic Valley, and who has spent 5 years on the board of the Organic Trade Association, in addition to serving on the USDA’s Advisory Committee on Biotechnology & 21st Century Agriculture, the Environmental Working Group and Organic Voices.
In this episode of Rootstock Radio, Missy discusses organic standards and recent circumstances around the Organic Livestock Poultry Practices rule (OLPP). This rule, which was instated on the last day of Obama’s presidency and subsequently retracted by the Trump administration, clarifies and ensures consistency in organic practices with regard to raising poultry.
“They have perfected these monster houses with 50,000 birds in them and then they are able to just ‘flip a switch’ and have that be an organic egg house, because they’re providing organic feed and not doing antibiotics. But they’re completely ignoring this whole other piece of the puzzle that we know is really important by not letting those birds outside.”
Not only do the standards need to be clarified for consumers who may not know that some eggs aren’t produced as responsibly as the USDA-certified organic seal leads them to believe, these standards also need to be clarified for the sake of smaller-scale organic operations. “It’s really hard to compete against a monster house when you’re producing a much smaller number of eggs because you’re doing it ‘right,’” says Missy.
Now is the time for all stakeholders, organic famers, organic consumers and organic manufacturers, to come together in support of clear rules and rigorous organic certification standards.
Want to hear more about humane animal care? Check out this Rootstock Radio interview with the renowned animal welfare activist Temple Grandin. Or hear from Lena Brook of the Natural Resources Defense Council about how she is fighting the overuse of antibiotics in agriculture.
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Melissa Hughes
Air Date: February 5, 2018
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I am here today with Melissa Hughes, who is not just the general counsel of CROPP Coop but she has been five years on the board of the Organic Trade Association, and three of those years the president. I’m really excited to talk with Missy today because we are facing some interesting things in the organic industry that are kind of frightening, and Missy is in the middle of it. So we’re going to have a great chance to talk with her, not only from a perspective of the many farmers that she works for but as a lawyer and as someone who’s had lots of experience with the USDA. Welcome, Missy.
MISSY HUGHES: Thanks, Theresa. It’s great to be here.
TM: For our listeners, Missy has also been on an advisory committee of the USDA with the biotech industry. So she has some kinds of insights that a lot of us don’t really hear all the time. So, Missy, I wanted to start out, what has really stimulated my conversation with you is this acronym we’re now calling the OLPP, the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices. Tell us a little bit about what that’s about, where did it come from, and why it’s such a big issue right now.
MH: So if I can, Theresa, I’ll back up for a second to remind everybody that the USDA is responsible for the implementation of the Organic Foods Production Act. So organic lives at the USDA in the National Organic Program, and it’s been there since 1990 when the statute was passed. And since that time we’ve been developing this set of standards about what organic means. And it’s a challenge because, on the one hand, we’re faced with working with a big government institution on a program that we hold so near and dear and that many, many farmers rely on. Over the course of the last almost 30 years we’ve had about 25,000 farmers take the time to become organic certified. And so it’s really important that we watch that seal and we make sure it’s really a well-protected and vibrant program. And so we’re really involved with that. You mentioned my serving on AC21, and that’s part of staying involved with the USDA, staying at the table, and talking with them about these issues that face both organic farmers and all farmers in the United States, but really representing those organic farmers.
So the OLPP—and I’ll say it again just so everybody can get comfortable with it: it’s the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule. It’s a new rule that’s been proposed and worked on that would clarify and make consistent organic practices with regard to livestock. So you’d just traditionally call it animal welfare. And when the Organic Food Production Act was passed in 1990, the intention was that we would develop a whole set of rules around what organic means. And that work began right away; it took 12 years to do it, lots of public process, lots of comments, and then going back and reworking the rule.
And during that process, animal welfare was addressed in ways where it said animals have to have access to outdoors. They have to be on pasture. And at that time, people were satisfied that that’s enough to be able to tell everybody what organic means, knowing that we needed to come back and develop it and think about it more, but do that with a long public process.
So about 12 years ago we started working on really making the animal welfare part of organic much more vibrant. What does “access to outdoors” mean, especially for cows and for chickens and for hogs? All these different animals that we’re finding on organic farms, we needed to understand what does that mean.
TM: I’m going to just interrupt for one second, for our listeners, to just back up even further. Why should animals go outside? Well, because the organic rule and the organic standards have this concept in that animals, while they’re living, will follow the natural habits. And guess what—animals and chickens and cows, they all like to be outdoors. That’s why this animal welfare was such a basic principle that’s embedded in the organic standards.
MH: Yeah, it’s really about their natural behaviors. So a chicken should be able to scratch in the ground and peck around for little worms and things like that. A cow should be able to chew on grass. And we all know that pigs love to root around in the dirt and get really nasty, and so they should be able to do that. And it’s really important for their health.
So if you think about it, organic doesn’t have access to tools like antibiotics, and so it’s really important that the animals be able to have their natural behavior so that they’re not crammed into a box or trapped inside, because that’s when you start to see sickness develop. And then, of course, if you don’t have the tools to deal with the sickness, you can’t really manage your operation. So it’s really all part of this whole organic system, that the animals are able to exhibit their natural behaviors, be outside, have the benefits of sunshine, have the benefits of scratching around and moving and having the room to move. And so those are really key for every organic operation.
TM: My understanding is when the standard was passed in 1990, there was a lot of work to do, even after 12 years. And so they had a clause about continual improvement. So doesn’t this also enter the OLPP issue as well?
MH: Yeah, so organic has this amazing thing that’s called a National Organic Standards Board. So this is a group of 15 people, they’re volunteers, and it’s what’s called a federal advisory committee. They come together and their job is to give the Secretary of Ag advice on how organic should evolve and what should happen with it. So they took up this concept of animal welfare, access to outdoors, what does this mean. And through the course of their meetings, they took all this public input, they had comments, and they started to develop a recommendation for what could make this even more vibrant and really meaningful for both the farmer and the consumer.
Well, in the middle of this, while this public process is going on, this tricky little thing happened. There was an ag operation in Massachusetts that built a henhouse with a porch. So a porch, in the land of poultry production, is a cement block with a shed roof over it and walls all around it, but those walls are screened. So the idea that this group had—and I’m going to avoid saying their name—what they decided to do was they said, “Well, that’s outdoors!” So imagine, if you’re going out to your screened-in porch at your house, you don’t say, “I’m going outside.” You saying, “I’m going out onto the porch.” And so these chickens go out onto the porch, there’s no direct sunshine down on them, there’s no scratching around, there’s no worms and any kind of…you know, they might put sawdust or something like that onto the floor of the porch, but there’s no real natural behavior happening there.
And so what unfortunately happened is, because this concept of access to outdoors hadn’t been fully developed in the standards, they were allowed to do this. So we had this precedent that porches were okay. And now, we all know how capitalism works: others looked at this and said, oh, that’s awesome—I can have an organic chicken house with porches. I don’t have to worry about the land around the chicken house; I don’t have to let the chickens out. I don’t have to do any of that, and I can still sell an “organic” egg.
And so what we saw is a couple big producers take advantage of this precedent and start to come into the organic egg industry and be able to have “organic” eggs that they can sell at your store, and you see them and they look like all the other organic eggs, but the reality is those poor chickens have never seen anything but this concrete floor with some sawdust on it. They’ve never been anywhere but the screened-in porch.
TM: And these are really, really big, big producers who do mostly probably conventional eggs but then they have an organic line as well.
MH: Yeah, they’re really good at conventional eggs. They have perfected these monster houses with 50,000 birds in them. And then they are able to kind of just flip a switch and have that be an organic egg house because they’re providing organic feed and they’re not doing antibiotics. But they’re completely ignoring this whole other piece of the puzzle that we know is really important and not letting those birds outside.
TM: Well, you know, the organic industry, however, came together and decided no, they didn’t want that. And so isn’t that where now this comes in, the big guys versus the others who are organic poultry producers who say no, that’s not the way we want to raise our poultry.
MH: Yeah, it’s like the nature of this government beast is everything kind of happens in slow motion. And the big guys start to build these houses, and the little guys are farming and they’re busy keeping their own businesses going, and all of a sudden there’s this competition that… It’s really hard to compete against a monster house when you’re producing a much smaller number of eggs because you’re doing it “right.”
TM: You’re providing yards outside, you’re pushing your chickens out, and you’re not having 50,000-bird houses; you’re probably more like 2,000 average or something like that.
MH: Yeah, 2,000 to 5,000 or so. Because that’s, it’s really…chickens are very difficult, and so getting them outside is a process. You have to herd these chickens outside because sometimes they don’t like change, like many of us. So they’re happy inside, and then you say, “Okay, chickens, it’s time to go outside,” but they don’t just go marching out there—you need to give them a little excitement for getting out there.
TM: The OLPP, however, didn’t that happen over a long period of time?
MH: Yeah, so that developed through all… Public process takes a long time, so all these comments are coming in, and what does it mean to be very caring for the animals’ welfare, at the same you have to balance that against the farmers’ needs. And so lots of really good public process happened, and the NOSB, the National Organic Standards Board that I mentioned earlier, put out a recommendation to the USDA. So now, the way this technically works is the USDA takes the recommendation and makes it into a proposed rule. So that’s the OLPP. And this proposed rule was put forward; there were lots of comments received about that.
But then all of a sudden you the parts of the government that we’re not always crazy about: the lobbyists and the political interests, the special interests start to come out of the woodwork. And so these big farmers, these big ag farmers that you were referring to, Theresa, happen to live in states with very powerful senators. And so they rang up their senators and said, “We don’t like this rule. This rule’s going to put us out of business.”
TM: Or put us out of organic business.
MH: Put us out of organic business. What they never told the senators is, “Well, we kind of knew this was coming all along, and we hurried up and built our houses and got them certified before the rules changed.” So if they were paying attention—of course, these are big businesses so we know they were paying attention—they knew these rules were coming. But yet they claimed, “Oh, no, this is going to really damage us.” And their senators listened, as their senators should do for their constituents—that’s all okay.
The other big factor of political special interest that was at play here is big ag. And big livestock ag has always been very, very much against animal welfare standards and regulations. They do not want the government in their business when it comes to how the animals are treated. And so organic having more vibrant rules was a real threat to big ag because it’s the tip of the iceberg: “What’s going to stop them from coming and regulating us about the 10,000 cows that we have that we never let outside, or the chickens that are raised in a teeny little cage? We don’t want that.”
So there were two big fights pushing back against the organic community that really wanted this rule: these big ag houses who have powerful senators, and then big livestock ag who have incredible voice within the USDA.
TM: And the other question I have, Missy, is since the Organic Food Production Act of 1990, and then it was implemented in 2001, 11 years almost later; then they continued, they started the process, there have been a number of things that went to the USDA as proposed changes that were more or less the majority or consensus from the organic industry, and those were accepted by the USDA. I can’t think of one offhand, but—
MH: Well, a really good example, Theresa, is the pasture rule. So kind of almost a parallel conversation: cows were required [to have] access to outdoors in all but very bad weather. And so the idea here was that you wouldn’t have CAFOs, you wouldn’t have confined animal operations. And during this same period it was like, okay, we need to clarify this because there were some concerns that there were big farms coming on that weren’t letting their cows out on grass, which of course we know is so important. And the community came together, the big and small, everyone came together and said this is the right standard; cows have to be outside for at least a certain period of time and receive a certain amount of their diet from pasture. And that rule went through.
TM: Right, so why now? There was always large livestock producers against that as well, but now we have a new precedent that it seems like a first time where the USDA is saying, “Well, we know that’s what the National Organic Program and the National Organic Standards Board want, but we don’t care.” There’s a lot of anger and fighting back on this right now. But what is it that, what’s this new precedent for them? Is that something we should be really afraid of? Does that mean all the things in organic that we want to change as we do our continual improvement, we’re going to be pushed back if some big, large producer doesn’t want it?
MH: I think we need to definitely look at that as a potential, and we need to be able to bring our forces and conversations together so that they are not hitting up against those big interests all the time. I think that there’s an emotional piece, Theresa. I think that they’re jealous of the success of organic, they feel threatened by it, so there is definitely a move against organic.
We were just talking about this Newsweek article where there’s real…we didn’t want to use the word “fake news” but I can’t think of anything else! There’s fake news against organic, because people, big ag wants to claim that their food is just fine. They don’t want to have to be transparent about things the way organic is. Organic is very threatening in that it lays everything out there, and this is where your food comes from, this is how your food is produced. And big ag does not want to share that information.
And so animal welfare is like, that’s right there. The whole movement for cage-free, the whole videos that are taken by PETA or whoever, is so threatening to the way they do their business and the way they don’t want to share information about what farming is. They want to hide it and have it be a happy cow on a carton. They don’t want people in their business.
TM: But then there’s another point here that really baffles me, and that is, I would think the USDA and all of the Republicans and Trump Administration, the organic industry, what is it now, $50 billion? This should be a poster child for free enterprise. And what’s it based on? Just farmers who voluntarily—which, the farming community has a, the total farming community, you have to wonder, they don’t like anyone telling them what to do. And they themselves, in the organic industry, have said, “No, we are going to impose standards upon ourselves.”
MH: They’re voluntarily signing up for the program. They want to be involved, they want to be regulated. We want really strong standards because we want to be able to hold that up to the consumer and say, “This is what we’re doing.”
You know, I love taking farmers to Washington, D.C., because we go and visit offices. And often I’ll take the farmers to Republican offices because it’s such a great small-business story. They’re successful, their partners are able to stay on the farm with them, their kids are going to college, and their kids are coming back to the farm. And they don’t hear this from the big farms.
TM: And they’re not asking for subsidies!
MH: No, and they’re not asking for subsidies. So free enterprise in farming happens on organic farms. Free enterprise doesn’t happen on these big farms, because they’re driven by subsidies and they’re completely on the government’s—
TM: They’re drinking at the public trough.
MH: There you go. It’s not a fair game.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here with Melissa Hughes, general counsel at CROPP Coop, also on the board of the Organic Trade Association, and someone truly devoted to the organic industry and what it is we can do to help improve our food system. We’re talking about the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices and the USDA saying oh, no, no, no, you can’t do it, and it’s so transparently about these big poultry houses who don’t want to sacrifice their shortcuts. What now?
MH: So I mentioned that there was an incredible community effort to provide public input on the OLPP and what this rule should look like. The community came together, still during the Obama Administration, and proposed what this rule was going to be like. We were all set to go. And literally on the day they were leaving office, the Obama Administration put this rule into effect. And so the Trump Administration comes in and immediately withdraws all rules that are in play at that moment, right? You might remember that, where they said for every two regulations we’re going to get rid of one, or every one regulation we’re going to get rid of two. And so immediately it stalled.
And we kept working on it, we kept talking to them, we had meetings, we said this is really important to us. The NOSB weighed in and said this is really important to us. Well, ultimately, at the end of December, four days before Christmas, the Trump Administration said, “We’re withdrawing this rule completely. It’s not going to go into effect.”
And so we have had an amazing reaction to that. We had over 70,000 comments to the USDA about how the process should be allowed to go forward, put the rule in place. So that’s very encouraging. I’m not sure how much the Trump Administration will listen because they have very powerful forces that we talked about, in their other ear. But we can do what we can do, and we need to feel good about what we’re doing and move it forward. The Organic Trade Association, you mentioned I’m on the board of that, has sued the USDA, along with the Humane Society has now come in with a lawsuit to try to force the USDA to listen to what has happened through this public process and put it into place.
And it’s really important that we get to the bottom of this, because what happens in organic is this really interesting public-private partnership. The USDA enforces the rules that we ask for, and industry and farmers and consumers get to participate in this organic marketplace and access the food that they’re looking for. So this partnership is really important, and it’s one of these moments where the private side is needing to remind the public side, “Hey, we’re partners.” And that means we listen to each other and we have lots of conversation, and then we move forward together. And right now the USDA is…they need a little bit more education on that.
TM: I guess I’m going to have to ask this question now, really, and that is, we find that we’re stymied, we can’t get continual improvement, we can’t keep differentiating ourselves in the marketplace through the organic standard because the USDA and Monsanto and the biotech world, who runs the USDA, is bent on shutting us down in so many different ways. How is it that those producers can be differentiated? And do you see that there’s going to be some kind of a counter, private movement without…you know, since we can’t work with the government anymore? I mean, kind of, maybe I’m asking for a worst-case scenario. But those are the things, I think, that worry me.
MH: Well, those are definitely the things that keep me up at night too. I think that it’s so tragic because, like I mentioned, 25,000 farmers have taken up the USDA Organic Seal as their own. And now, to have the rug pulled out from under them, so to speak, in that the USDA is not necessarily being as supportive of the seal as we need them to be, could be really devastating.
But I think the important thing to keep in mind is 30 years ago all these different, differentiated groups involved in organic came together and solved what was a fragmented market at that point. They brought it all together and created the seal in a very creative way. It’s been a long, creative process. And I really believe that now is the time for all these stakeholders—the organic farmers, the organic consumers, the organic manufacturers—to come together and say, okay, our public partner isn’t quite there with us, so what do we have to do to batten down the hatches and to make sure that the consumers continue to know that the Organic Seal is incredibly valuable, is meaningful, much more meaningful than any other seal that they’re going to find out in the marketplace. And they will find ways to solve this.
And it’s going to be through ways of choosing certifiers who will only certify to the rules we want them to certify to. It’s going to be farmers demanding that those certifiers do a really good job when they’re on their farm, and that the records are impeccable, that we have just amazing oversight of what’s happening, and we have very clear rules and what’s being certified to that. And then, the big job then is going to be educating the consumers about what’s happening. But I think, Theresa, you know so much the power of the consumer and the power of consumer knowledge, and so we need to tap into that and make sure that the consumers continue to dig deep to understand where their food is coming from. And I think we have great minds in the organic industry, and I think we can make it happen with the power of the organic farmers and the organic consumers.
TM: Well, I think, as our listeners out there are sitting there going, “Dig deep!”, to really understand what the difference is between the real truth and post-truth and all the crazy stuff that we just keep seeing out there that are filled with misinformation.
MH: Well, we’re so on the brink, right, that every choice the consumer makes is going to need to be a thoughtful choice, because farmers, even with organic, are still…it’s a terribly hard profession, it’s terribly hard to make ends meet. And so every time you have the choice and you make the choice to support the organic farmer, you’re making a choice for the future. And to keep, hold at bay that big ag movement, because that’s where everything could easily go. And every individual, every citizen, has a role in making sure that we hold back that tidal wave that could easily come at us.
TM: While you were saying “holding big ag at bay,” I could hear some voices out there saying, “But we have to feed the world! We need this big ag.”
MH: If you could see my face right now—that’s the benefit of radio, I guess! Listen: If you have five acres of GMO corn, there is not one human calorie that you can consume in that five acres. You can’t walk out and eat an ear of corn from that. You’ll break all your teeth and it won’t taste good and you won’t be able to digest it. But if you put five acres of squash, organic squash, or you put five acres of a beautiful homestead farm in India, they’re growing plenty of food for a number of families on that small acreage. And that’s how you feed the world. You don’t feed the world through GMO corn or soybeans that no one can eat except a cow or a chicken. You have to create food and grow food that everyone can eat right there from the farm.
TM: Missy, I know that you’re really in touch a lot with the consumers. But as someone who represents farmers, that’s a huge job in itself. Tell us about the farmers that you represent.
MH: Well, I have the best lawyering job in the history of the universe. I represent 2,000 farmers that own CROPP Cooperative. So I work for CROPP, and it’s a cooperative, it’s owned by the farmer-members, over 2,000 of which we have all around the country—I think it’s 36 different states—Australia, Canada, and England. So we have farmers all around the world that we represent. They are 100 percent certified organic.
You know what’s so amazing? I just want to tell a little story. So when we were working on the last month on the OLPP and getting people to comment on it, we reached out through our hotline—we called. I think we managed to reach about 700 of our farmers. You know, it was a short timeline. And we asked our farmers to call their senators and congressmen. And we had a couple farmers, including Ernest Martin, who you know, who said, “I’ve never called the government before in my whole life!” But they felt this was so important that they called their senator and talked to them. And they’re like, “Wow, that was kind of cool.” So even, you know, these farmers, they will write comments and stuff, but we said we really need you to pick up the phone and make a call. And the farmers absolutely did that and picked up that phone and made that phone call to their congressman or their senator, asking to please call the USDA and put this into effect.
TM: Well, I was pretty proud about the number of farmers and the number of consumers who really stepped up over a short period of time.
MH: Over Christmas and New Year’s—that was terrible.
TM: Yeah, over Christmas and New Year’s. And when you do that, when you citizens out there call and participate in your democracy, it’s a good thing. It’s really what democracy is about. And thank you so much for all you do, Missy. It’s great talking with you.
MH: Thank you for having me.
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