It took years of heated debate, but the federal government has finally decided just how much living space an organic chicken should have.
It's part of a new set of rules that cover many aspects of animal welfare in the organic food industry. But the biggest impact of the rule will be felt in the organic egg industry.
Organic egg producers always were required to let their hens go outside. But the organic rules didn't define exactly how much space the animals needed. So some organic egg producers built large chicken houses, containing tens of thousands of hens, while allowing those hens access only to a small enclosed porch, rather than pasture.
Organic activists, such as the Cornucopia Institute, have accused those large-scale organic egg producers of violating the spirit of the organic rules, and called on the USDA to crack down on them.
According to the new rules, farmers must provide at least one square foot of outdoor space for each 2.25 pounds of poultry in their flock. According to Jesse Laflamme, CEO of Pete and Gerry's Organic Eggs, that translates to about two square feet per egg-laying hen, or about an acre for a flock of 20,000.