At Vital Farms, we have always put the wellbeing our hens first. If we take care of them, then everything else follows – the sustainable use of the land, the beneficial relationship with the farmers that we work with, a dependable supply chain for our customers, and, ultimately, a superior product for the folks who get to enjoy the culmination of this ethical food chain.
When we started, we had little inkling of the industry-wide consequences of our actions. While we were moving the fences in our pastures, we were also moving the goal posts of humane animal farming. People started to see the difference in the eggs they enjoyed every day, and learn the difference about where those eggs came from. And they slowly they became increasingly resistant to the long-held idea that efficient factory farming meant sacrificing the well-being of the beautiful creatures that provided for us. They began to reject that idea. Regulations began to change – such as California’s Prop 1 – and so did baseline thinking. Chain after chain of restaurants and supermarkets saw that consumers were losing their appetite for eggs raised in the cruelest of cages, and one by one pledged to transition to cage-free production, at a bare minimum. We like to think that we played a small role in that.
At the other end of the consumer spectrum, in the world of organic and Organic produce and goods, increasing awareness and education was driving more and more people to be selective about their purchases. Pesticides, herbicides, sprays and toxins became things to knowingly avoid simply by being offered a government recognized and certified stamp, that of USDA Organic. With that seal came a certain confidence that the product in question – from apples to zucchini, eggs to milk – had been farmed with stricter, yet more benevolent methods. Friendlier. Healthier. Better for you.
Yet. There has ever been a gulf in some systems between what the public imagines the seal to imply, and the reality of what it actually governs. And for egg-laying hens that gulf could not be much larger.
As it currently stands, while the USDA does have a lengthy set of regulations that stipulate a multitude of ways in which an Organic egg-farm must be operated, these regulations apply primarily to almost everything except the welfare of the animals at the very heart of the farm. And while there has been much effort by advisory boards to amend this, larger players in the egg world, who would have to make the most significant changes to their farming methods, are using very lobbying trick imaginable to prevent any changes to the status quo.
Right now, USDA Organic standards for the welfare egg-laying hens are a long way from public perception. Hens on a certified USDA farm are provided with little meaningful outdoor space (less than 2 square feet per bird) and minimal real access to that space. With the consequence that many of these hens rarely if ever go outside, and are greeted with not much more than a dirt patch when they do.
The National Organic Standards Board, an independent advisory to the organic industry, has proposed, with much consideration and scientific support, an amendment to these standards that would significantly increase outdoor space and access, still short of the spacious requirements of pasture-raised, but a generous increase from where they stand (or peck). We believe that that is the very least they should get to enjoy, if the USDA wants to persist with supporting a ‘free-range’ standard. It must be more than just a marketing term.
So what can you do? Well, we’ve submitted a rebuttal to the NOP in the comments of the bill, and we’d love for you to go and offer your support for that. It’s only through consumer participation that we can make things better!
All hens should be happy and healthy, and be provided with a certain level of humane treatment. Let’s make that happen!