The FDA is yet again putting burdens on farmers who use healthy, sustainable practices, and justifying them with fear-based assumptions rather than data. The agency’s latest move is a draft guidance document that will make it all but impossible for farmers with 3,000 or more laying hens to keep the birds on pasture.
The stated goal is to prevent the spread of salmonella from wild birds and other animals to the hens. But there is absolutely no evidence that pastured chickens pose a food safety threat. To the contrary, all the major incidents of salmonella in eggs have come from confinement factory farms.
Back in 2007, the FDA issued a rule to address the problem with laying hens carrying salmonella and passing it into their eggs. Under that rule, farms with more than 3,000 hens must take extensive steps to address the risk of salmonella contamination, including testing both the birds and the hen houses. Thanks to this mandatory testing, FDA now has several years of data on where salmonella has occurred – yet its new guidance document doesn’t refer to any cases of salmonella being connected to hens having access to pasture.
Hens that spend time outdoors in the sunlight, eating plants and insects, are healthier than hens kept crammed closely together inside a building. Informal testing has also shown that eggs from pastured hens are more nutritious than eggs from hens kept indoors and raised on exclusively on grain.
But FDA’s draft guidance document creates new burdens specifically for farmers who allow their hens to have access to pasture. Despite the lack of evidence, the FDA assumes that exposure to any wild animal creates a health risk, and that farmers should have to somehow keep their hens away from wild birds and other creatures. The FDA guidance suggests that farmers must cover their outdoor pastures with either roofing or netting, or use noise cannons to scare away wild birds. Of course, roofing a pasture is not only cost-prohibitive, but would prevent sun and rain from reaching the plants and animals in the pasture, defeating the whole purpose of having pastured hens. And the noise cannons that would scare away wild birds would also scare the laying hens.
The FDA, as usual, is favoring the mainstream industry practices. Although eggs labeled “organic” must allow birds outdoor access, the large-scale industrial operations simply connect small “porches” to their facilities and claim that this is enough. FDA’s guidance document gives the green light to this substandard process, while penalizing the producers who seek to provide true access to pasture.
Take Action! The FDA is accepting comments on its proposed guidance until September 23, 2013. Please write to the FDA today!
You can submit comments to FDA through their online system at http://www.regulations.gov/#!submitComment;D=FDA_FRDOC_0001-4090
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The FDA needs to base its requirements on science, not fear and speculation.
There is no evidence that letting hens have access to pasture increases the risk of salmonella contamination in their eggs. The provisions of the draft guidance document are unnecessary and unfairly target pastured producers.
While not improving food safety, the requirements will drive many pastured producers out of business. Building a canopy over a pasture is extremely expensive; even protecting a small part of it would cost more than most farms’ profits. Any structure that cut off sun or rain would quickly turn the grass-covered pasture into dry dirt, defeating the purpose of raising hens outdoors on pasture. Having to extend the fence below the surface of the ground would make it impossible to have movable fences, making it harder to do rotational pasture management. And using a noise cannon would scare the hens.
The FDA’s new outdoor egg rules aren’t necessary for food safety, but it will hurt farmers and consumers who want to have truly pastured eggs. I urge you to revoke all of the provisions in the draft guidance document that include requirements on the pasture portion of a pastured laying hen farm.