DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And now to a legal battle over the welfare of chickens. The organic industry is suing the government today, demanding new rules that require organic egg producers to give chickens more space to roam. Here's NPR's Dan Charles.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: The organic eggs in your grocery store are supposed to come from chickens that have year-round access to the outdoors. And a huge battle has erupted over what outdoors really means. A few big farmers like Greg Herbruck, president of Herbruck's Poultry Ranch in Saranac, Mich., say it means the chickens get to live in houses with screened-in porches.
GREG HERBRUCK: You know, it's like your screened porch on your house. It's - when you go out there, you're outside. You're protected from the rain. In this case, we protect them from wild birds, which could bring in disease, and predators.
CHARLES: So if outdoors just means a porch, you can build chicken houses right next to each other with tens of thousands of chickens in each one. At Herbruck's organic farm, they have 2.2 million hens in all.
HERBRUCK: And still growing. You know, we've been double digit growth for many, many years.
CHARLES: Close to half the organic eggs in the country come from farms like this. And it angers hundreds of other organic farmers with smaller operations who do have their hens running around outside. George Siemon, who's CEO of the Organic Valley cooperative, says it's this kind of farming that consumers expect from the organic label.
GEORGE SIEMON: It needs to be a whole system that features the bird's basic needs. And there's no doubt, a hen wants to be outside scratching on the ground.
CHARLES: So Siemon and like-minded organic producers have been trying to revise the rules covering organic animals. And in the very last days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture approved them. The new rules require organic egg producers to provide real outdoor space for each egg-laying hen. Porches don't count.
CHARLES: Laura Batcha, executive director of the Organic Trade Association, says there's overwhelming support for these rules among organic food companies.
LAURA BATCHA: The industry is committed to this. And totally gets it, that it's in everybody's interest to make sure the consumer gets what they're looking for.
CHARLES: But big organic egg producers and their allies in Congress continue to oppose the new rules. And when the Trump administration took office, it put the rules on hold and suggested it might withdraw them. So today, the Organic Trade Association is going to court, demanding that the government step aside and let the new rules take effect.
Dan Charles, NPR News.
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