According to the guidance, which is still in a comment period, producers who keep outdoor-access chickens (including those certified as organic by the FDA) are required to take steps to keep wild birds, cats, rodents, and other animals that can be vectors for disease, out of the indoor sections and porches of poultry houses.
Controlling these animals, as well as fly infestation, in outdoor areas, as well as environmental sampling of those areas, is a recommendation but not a requirement of the new rule. The guidance document offers suggestions, such as fences and high walls, roofing, and netting.
The guidance suggests using fences or high walls to keep animals out of the hens’ outdoor areas, according to an FDA question-and-answer document. To keep wild birds out, the agency suggests using roofing or netting like that used to protect berry crops or employing noise cannons. Producers are also advised to monitor and take steps to control rodents and flies in outdoor areas that are not part of poultry houses.
“Egg producers who allow outdoor access face different environmental realities from facilities that keep their hens inside,” wrote Michael Taylor, FDA’s deputy commissioner for foods and veterinary medicine, in a blog post. “The new guidance provides suggestions on how egg producers with 3,000 or more laying hens can protect their poultry from predators, pests, wild birds, and other animals and comply with the new egg regulation, yet still provide hens outdoor access. (Egg producers with fewer than 3,000 laying hens and egg producers who sell all of their eggs directly to consumers are exempt from the Egg Safety Rule.)”
FDA officials visited eight poultry farms in California, Texas, Arkansas, Washington, Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, and Massachusetts from August to September 2012 to gather first-hand information before writing the guidelines. “It seems like the FDA really did their homework looking at how organic birds are raised in numerous states,” says Patrick McDonough, PhD, associate professor of population medicine and diagnostic sciences at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
But he suggests that there might be a couple of elements still missing. “After reading the guidelines, I don’t see anything to address the issue of potentially contaminated water. If your birds are outside and you have puddles of water, they’ll drink it, and contamination is one thing to be concerned about.”
Some natural-food and animal rights advocates have criticized the rule with its suggestions of walls and fences as taking the “free range” out of free range poultry. “I see that point,” concedes McDonough. “How can a bird be free range if they’re enclosed somewhat? But it’s a matter of how else do you safeguard the birds from feral cats, pigeons, rodents, insects, and other things that are well documented to carry Salmonella? Now it’s up to organic producers to figure out how to achieve the goal of this proposal before it does become a mandate and still maintain what you believe is the definition of organic and access to the outdoors.”