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The FDA doesn't want chickens to explore the great outdoors

Free-range chickens feed in a pasture on an organic farm in Illinois.
Free-range chickens feed in a pasture on an organic farm in Illinois.
Seth Perlman/AP

Organic egg farmers are divided in their reaction to a new FDA proposal that, if adopted and enforced, could require canopies and fences to separate free-roaming chickens from wild birds and rodents.

The proposal is intended to reduce the risk that chickens will pick up salmonella bacteria from wildlife and lay contaminated eggs. In practice, depending on its interpretation, the regulation could shut down large-scale pastures for egg-laying chickens.

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The FDA's distrust of outdoor lifestyles for chickens is based on studies showing that wildlife and their droppings often carry salmonella bacteria. For that reason, the FDA issued rules back in 2009 ordering farms to keep all mice, rats and wild birds out of chicken houses.

But what if your chickens don't stay indoors? Organic eggs, for instance, are required to come from chickens that have "access to the outdoors" at all times. How can a farmer keep them separate from wildlife?

This week's draft "Guidance for Industry" document proposes an answer. It calls on farmers to keep wildlife from entering any outdoor area where chickens are kept. Possible ways to do this include fences to exclude cats and other animals, traps or bait to control mice and voles, and roofing or netting to keep out wild birds.

This isn't a problem for many big organic egg producers. Their chickens go "outdoors" by moving to "porches" or "runs" that are next to chicken houses. These areas often are much smaller than the houses, and frequently are covered and enclosed by screens.

Organic farmers who believe in keeping chickens on true pastures, though, will have a harder time. They include Cameron Molberg, general manager of egg production at Coyote Creek Farm in Elgin, Texas. At Molberg's operation, called World's Best Eggs, 10,000 egg-laying chickens graze on 60 acres of pasture, where they scratch in the dirt for worms and bugs.

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Building a canopy over the pasture, Molberg says, isn't financially feasible. Even protecting a small part of it "would cost 10 times more than our entire profit last year." Also, any structure that cuts off sun or rain would quickly turn a grass-covered pasture into dry dirt. "It kind of defeats the purpose of pastured eggs, to be honest," he says.

Molberg is convinced that the new rules aren't necessary. He tests his farm's eggs for salmonella and has found none.

"A hen in a natural environment is less stressed, and she's less likely to get sick," he says.

In fact, there's little solid evidence that eggs from chickens on pasture are more likely to carry salmonella. A study in Great Britain, in fact, found less salmonella contamination in eggs from non-caged chickens. (Many cage-free chickens, however, are kept indoors.)

The FDA's guidance does offer some options to farmers who can't or won't enclose their pastures. These include keeping chickens from going outside when wild birds are likely to be around, or deploying noise cannons to scare away wild birds. But these options don't seem very practical. Chickens might not be inclined to lay many eggs, for instance, with noise cannons going off.

The Cornucopia Institute, a group that campaigns to keep organic farming true to its alternative roots, called the draft regulations a plot by the FDA and the USDA to "eliminate true organic production."

According to a statement released by the institute's co-director, Mark Kastel, "the recommendations in this draft guidance essentially give organic producers a textbook of excuses for why their birds can legally be confined in industrial settings." The institute has put together a rogue's gallery of organic hen houses that offer chickens only limited access to the outdoors.

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