The USDA rules require that organic egg-laying hens be allowed access to the outdoors. But advocates for animal welfare feel that large-scale organic egg producers do not currently provide their hens with enough outdoor access. There is an effort to convince the USDA to strengthen the outdoor access requirement.
Now, it turns out that the FDA has a rule of its own for egg farmers. (That’s right, the FDA—a completely separate government department). The FDA “Egg Rule” says if you are a large scale producer (over 3,000 hens), you must takes steps to prevent your hens from picking up the Salmonella Enteritidis bug. The Egg Rule is not new. But the FDA just recently issued a “draft guidance” which basically says that the Egg Rule means that laying hens—even organic ones—should never be allowed outside. At least not in the real world. You can let the hens into an outdoor area as long as you keep them away from all wild birds, rodents, and flies.
Setting aside the annoyance of two different agencies playing tug-of-war with the rules, it just seems wrong that the term “organic” should be watered down in this way. Outdoors where the wild birds are, where the rodents and the flies are—that is exactly where chickens naturally belong. If we can’t let the hens interact with nature, I don’t think we should be calling their eggs “organic.”