SARANAC, Mich. — Of all the cartons of organic eggs sold in the United States, more than 1 in 10 originates from a complex here that houses more than 1.6 million hens.
They’re sold under the Eggland’s Best label.
“The entire process is organic,” Greg Herbruck, president of Herbruck's Poultry Ranch says in a promotional video.
Details of the operation are not publicly available, however, and he declined a Washington Post reporter’s request for a visit, citing the possibility that it could infect the flock with disease, such as avian flu.
But according to people familiar with the operation, as well as a building plan, each of the nine long rectangular barns at Herbruck's holds about 180,000 birds, or more than three hens per square foot of floor space, according to sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not been authorized to speak for the company.
None of the birds is allowed to set foot outside, sources said.
Under USDA requirements, organic livestock are supposed to have access to the “outdoors,” get “direct sunlight” and “fresh air.” The rules prohibit “continuous total confinement of any animal indoors.” Organic livestock are supposed to be able to engage in their “natural behavior,” and for chickens, that means foraging on the ground for food, dust-bathing and even short flights.
Katherine Paul of the Organic Consumers Association said the Herbruck's operation betrays consumer expectations.
“This is not at all what consumers expect of an organic farm," she said, when told about Herbruck's. "It's damaging to the image of the entire industry.People will wonder, ‘Why the hell am I paying more for this?’ ”
In addition, Paul said, allowing the large egg operations to confine their hens to the barn creates an unfair advantage when hundreds of smaller family organic operations let the hens out and sustain higher costs.
The USDA allows Herbruck's and other large operations to sell their eggs as organic because officials have interpreted the word “outdoors” in such a way that farms that confine their hens to barns but add “porches” are deemed eligible for the valuable “USDA Organic” label. The porches are typically walled-in areas with a roof, hard floors and screening on one side.
As for how densely organic livestock may live, the USDA rules do not set an explicit minimum of space per bird, although the regulations do say henhouses should accommodate the “natural behavior” of the animals.
To make more space inside the Herbruck's organic henhouses, which contain 56,000 square feet and stand about 20 feet in height, Herbruck has installed four levels of metal shelves. The shelves are known as "aviaries."
Herbruck said it is misleading to say the hens are kept at three per square foot of floor space because the shelves add space for the birds. He declined to say how much space those shelves provide. He did not dispute the Post's reporting on the number of hens and size of the barns.
And like other large organic egg producers that use porches, Herbruck said the hens are confined to the barns and the porches for their own good.
“The use of organic porches reflects Herbruck’s commitment to the hen health and food safety that our customers and consumers demand,” Herbruck said in a statement. “Porches keep the hens safe, allowing them to be outdoors while protecting them from wild birds like ducks and geese, and predators like vermin that spread disease and can hurt or kill hens.”
Although regulations for animal welfare can mean higher food prices and are sometimes dismissed as a contemporary fad of the elite, Americans — going back as far as the Puritans — have looked askance at practices they consider cruel. In 1641, a legal code in Massachusetts banned “any Tirrany or Crueltie toward any bruite Creature which are usuallie kept for man’s use.”
More recently, U.S. consumers have taken a particular interest in chickens. Seeking to accommodate consumer preferences, large companies such as McDonalds, Subway, Walmart and Starbucks have announced that they will shift to cage-free products.
Voters, too, have shown a willingness to reform chicken operations by effectively banning cages. In 2008, California voters approved stricter rules for confinement at laying hen operations; in 2016, Massachusetts did the same.
Similar concerns for animal welfare have spurred the demand for organic eggs, which are supposed to come from birds that are not only cage-free but also allowed outside. About 12 percent of grocery store expenditures for eggs goes toward those labeled USDA Organic, and many buyers appear to think the hens are allowed out.
More than 80 percent of consumers who regularly buy organic products believe it is important that organic eggs come from chickens that are allowed outside, according to a March survey by Consumer Reports. The Cornucopia Institute, a watchdog group that has sought to guard against weakening of organic standards, has complained repeatedly to the USDA about operations that keep their hens inside and publishes a consumer guide to egg brands.
But exactly what the USDA Organic label signifies on a carton of eggs has become unclear.
The vast majority of small “organic” egg farms in the United States do allow their hens outside. For example, all the farms that produce eggs for the Pete and Gerry’s brand are required to let their hens out.
“We think that’s what consumers expect of organic eggs,” said Jesse Laflamme, co-owner and chief executive at Pete and Gerry's Organics.
But some of the large egg operations — such as Herbruck's; Kreher’s in Clarence, N.Y.; and a large Kansas facility operated by Cal-Maine, keep their hens in barns with “porches” to comply with organic regulations, according to photographs, documents and interviews with inspectors and industry experts.
Because the eggs from these large operations may be sold under several different stores' brands, it is difficult for consumers to know where their USDA Organic eggs are being produced.
Hal Kreher, of Kreher Eggs, said in a statement that porches “allow our hens to be outside, exposed to sunlight and fresh air, and the porches also protect our hens by keeping them safe from dangerous predators and diseases.”
Bob Scott, vice president of operations of Cal-Maine Foods said in a statement that "our organic farms strictly adhere to the current National Organic Program standards, which are designed to provide hens with outdoor access in a way that protects them from disease, predators or other harm."
In a striking measure of confusion within the USDA Organic program, even the inspection agencies that certify organic farms don’t agree on whether keeping the hens confined to barns with porches should be considered “organic.”
Some agencies, such as California Certified Organic Farmers, one of the largest, refuse to certify such operations as "USDA Organic."
Other inspection agencies, however, allow farm operations to confine their hens to barns.
Because organic farmers select their own inspection agency, a farmer who wants to keep hens confined need only hire one of the more lenient agencies.
Herbruck's, for example, is given USDA Organic status by an inspection agency known as Quality Assurance International. Tracy Favre, an official with QAI, did not directly say why it approves poultry farms with porches.
“QAI makes its decision on compliance in accordance with the regulations, policies and guidance of the National Organic Program,” she said in a statement.
Efforts to clear up the confusion, meanwhile, have been met with delays from the USDA and Capitol Hill.
For years, consumer advocates and small farmers have sought to clarify the regulations for organic hens, demanding that the USDA enforce the outdoors requirement more rigorously.
In 2011, the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board voted unanimously to classify porches on henhouses as “indoors,” not outdoors. The board said each bird should have at least 1.5 square feet of indoor space and 2 square feet of outdoor space.
Outdoor access “is a basic tenet of organic production,” the board’s recommendation said.
But objections from some of the largest egg operations — including Herbruck's — and two key Capitol Hill advocates appear to have stalled the proposal. Farm groups representing large conventional agricultural companies have also objected to these requirements.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D) of Michigan, where Herbruck's is based, and Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas, which is home to the large Cal-Maine facility, have expressed concerns about a proposal for a stricter rule.
In a letter to then-agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack last year, they wrote that “our constituents have expressed significant concern regarding possible unintended consequences.” The senators asked for additional time for public comment on the proposal, and it was delayed.
Then, in May, the Trump administration further delayed the implementation of the proposal for six more months, “to allow time for further consideration,” a move that many see as a prelude for dropping the regulation permanently.
The chief argument for confining the birds to porches is the claim, repeated by Herbruck, that keeping the hens inside protects them from predators and disease.
As proof, advocates cite a study at North Carolina State University that found mortality rates of over 30 percent for birds allowed outside. By contrast, the mortality rate for some birds kept inside was as low as 6 percent.
“It was mostly from predators — hawks, owls, eagles,” said Kenneth Anderson, the professor who led the study. The study was partially funded by poultry companies.
Other research conducted by the USDA, however, points the other way. It indicates that mortality rates at organic farms, most of which let their hens out, are lower than those at conventional farms, where the hens are largely confined to barns.
A 2013 USDA study of farms in 19 states with at least 3,000 hens showed the average mortality rate was 7 percent at organic operations and 10 percent at conventional operations.
Advocates of allowing the hens out note that it also allows birds to do the things that birds want to do.
“Getting outside allows them to exhibit more of their natural behaviors freely than birds kept inside,” said Richard Blatchford of the University of California at Davis, who studies animal welfare in hens. “They can dust-bathe, they can forage, they can move freely and even engage in some flight behavior.”
Wayne Martin, owner of a family farm in Bernville, Pa., agrees.
“We have a large pasture for the hens, and when we open the doors in the morning, they’re pushing to get outside,” he said. "It’s what we’re required to do. It’s the right thing to do."