Chickens head for the woods.

Most Americans these days want their eggs to come from happy chickens — documentaries revealing horrific conditions inside the machinery of industrial farming long ago penetrated the public consciousness.

But figuring out which chickens are treated most humanely has always been a challenge, especially since big agriculture realized how using a few magic words can mean piles of money.

What makes cage-free different from organic? What makes organic different from grass-fed? Free range different from pasture-raised? No one really knows for sure, and that’s the problem.

It’s a question the organic industry has been trying to answer for more than a decade, ever since it realized major egg suppliers with huge, crowded barns were interpreting existing rules loosely, selling eggs with the organic seal when the chickens who laid them, even if freed from their cages, had likely never seen the sky. Regulations require organic eggs come from hens raised with outdoor access — so some producers built little porches off large, feces-littered sheds in order to get the sea l— and the higher prices that come with it.

Meanwhile, smaller producers that want consumers to know their chickens are truly happy keep adding labels, trying to differentiate themselves from the big guys. A carton of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs comes with a USDA organic seal and a list of guarantees: That the hens are raised without antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides or genetically modified feed. All that is standard under the USDA’s organic seal. But these eggs are also labeled “Certified Humane” and “Free Range.” Those labels are third-party certified, but still somewhat nebulous to most consumers. They’re extra.

“To rely on multiple certifications and audits is very frustrating,” said Jesse Laflamme, co-owner of Pete and Gerry’s, a company that expands by recruiting more small farms into its network instead of building out the original location. “You’re using up precious label space for one of these certifications that should be encompassed by USDA organic.” Not to mention, they all cost time and money — two things a lot of small farmers don't usually have to spare.

Even as prices on conventional eggs fell to record lows, organic buyers remain undeterred. While average egg prices were $2.23 per unit in the 52 weeks ending July 1, according to Nielsen, the average for organic eggs was $4.55. Nevertheless, sales for organic eggs still rose 4.9 percent by unit over that period.

The consumer commitment to frolicking chickens didn’t end there: The average price for grass-fed eggs was even higher, at $4.95 per unit. Sales in that category, a very small $801,000 business in the $5 billion egg market, rose 16.7 percent.

The kink in all of this is that many shoppers paying these premiums for eggs aren’t really sure what they’re paying for.

“Things that mean one thing to one consumer might mean something else to another,” said Jordan Rost, vice president of consumer insights at Nielsen. “Organic” may conjure images of sun-dappled fields with chickens ambling amid the daisies, when in fact it means an excrement-stained cement apron next to an air vent. Without clearer federal guidelines or additional certifications, you may never know.

“One of the most important things to the consumer is animal welfare — for the animals to be able to exhibit natural behavior,” said George Siemon, chief executive of dairy and egg producer Organic Valley and one of the original participants in efforts to define “organic.”

“There’s nothing more natural than a bird being able to go outdoors and scratch at a pile of something,” Siemon said. “I want organic to represent outdoors.”

The Trump administration is threatening to keep things as they are

The National Organic Standards Board, a federal advisory group, has been trying to clarify its requirements since at least 2002. That year, it voted 12-1 that “bare surfaces other than soil (e.g. metal, concrete, wood) don’t meet the intent of the National Organic Standards.” But that was just the beginning. After almost 10 years of debate, the board went even farther, saying in 2011 that organic hens should each be guaranteed at least two square feet, both indoors and outdoors, and access to soil.

Big agriculture producers such as Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch Inc., Cal-Maine Foods Inc., and Oakdell Egg Farms Inc. already opposed such rules, telling the USDA a year earlier that they represented “significant roadblocks” to making organic products more available. Finally, in April 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture proposed the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices Rule, which, if codified, would have the effect of making many of the big producers’ barns inadequate for raising organic eggs, due to a lack of outdoor access.

In a statement accompanying the proposed rule, then-Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack cited the “growing consumer preferences for more stringent outdoor living conditions,” adding that, “prolonging the disparity in organic egg production practices and the resulting consumer confusion would be detrimental to numerous organic egg producers who could readily comply with this proposed rule.”

The rule, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA), had the support of 95 percent of organic egg producers, with only the biggest ones opposing it. The regulation also seemed to have the support of consumers: The public submitted more than 6,500 comments on the rule, and according to the OTA, “an overwhelming number” supported it.

But after more than a decade of effort by organic farmers, the Trump administration is threatening to keep things as they are, with organic birds held indoors — and consumers often kept in the dark.

Eighty-three percent of organic shoppers say “organic” eggs should come from hens that can roam outdoors

On Jan. 19, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the USDA issued its final rule, set to go into effect four months later. But on Jan. 24, the Trump administration froze all regulations that had yet to take effect.

That was an expected move, typical for a new administration. But on May 10, the USDA issued a second delay for an additional 180 days, until Nov. 14. Also that day, it published a proposed rule presenting four options: Let the existing proposal go into effect in November, suspend it indefinitely, delay the effective date, or withdraw it entirely.

Rather than wait, the OTA sued the USDA this week, asking a Washington federal court to enforce the finalized Obama-era rule. In the process, it created the unlikely situation whereby an industry group is demanding more federal regulation.

The USDA will have a hard time defending itself, predicted Cary Coglianese, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Penn Program on Regulation.

“They’re boxed into a corner,” he said. “After 10 years of hearings and all the evidence that was marshaled to justify the rule in the first place, it’s going to be darn hard. It will require an equally solid basis opposing the rule than would have been put forward to justify it in the first place.” The USDA declined to comment on the lawsuit

Opponents of the stricter rules, however, have found bipartisan support in the Senate, especially among politicians from farm industry-heavy states. Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, joined with Michigan’s Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat, and 11 other senators to raise concerns. Organic Valley CEO Siemon called this “good old-fashioned politics”: Big Agriculture has a lot of money, and therefore, a lot of power, he said.

But 54 percent of Americans — and 83 percent of regular organic shoppers — are on the other side of the chicken wire. They say “organic” eggs should come from hens that can roam outdoors, according to Consumer Reports. And among Trump voters, 70 percent said the government should ensure consistency and transparency in standards for labels such as “organic” and “healthy,” a poll in December by Glover Park Group and Morning Consult found.

For now, though, consumers are left where they’ve always been: Staring at egg cartons, trying to figure out which one holds the eggs from the country’s happiest chickens. We may never know.

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