Organic animal husbandry: organic eggs for the masses

With no other foodstuff is the organic seal as important to us as with eggs. Yet German politicians allow organic rules to be broken.

An organic laying hen in her run in Petznick, Brandenburg Photo: Jost Maurin

For Bettina Matthaei, the chicken egg is "an all-round talent." "It holds cakes together, it makes desserts taste airier, and as a fried egg, it’s the fastest fast food in the world," Matthaei says. Eggs are in spaghetti, tortilla and chocolate mousse. Almost everyone who isn’t vegan eats them. "And let’s face it, what would Sunday brunch be without creamy scrambled eggs?"

Matthaei is 67 years old and lives in Hamburg. She is actually a graphic designer. But she also likes to cook and write about it – for example, the book "1 Egg – 50 Recipes."

Matthaei has seen on TV how most laying hens in Germany live: in cramped quarters and without any outdoor space. "The way they kick each other to death. Those are images you can’t get out of your head." That’s why she always buys organic eggs. "They give me the good feeling that the chickens weren’t doing too badly beforehand."

Many people see it that way. The egg is the product where Germans pay the most attention to animal husbandry. The debate over battery hens, which began in the 1980s, was the first major battle the agricultural industry lost: eggs from laying hens in cramped cages were selling worse and worse. Last year, of the 8.4 billion eggs households bought, 11.5 percent were organic, according to calculations by market research firm AMI. For no other food was the organic share higher.

You can only get into the barn in a full body suit

"Even the very best organic egg can be afforded by anyone," Matthaei says. A medium-sized organic copy costs around 30 cents. That’s almost three times the price of conventional barn-raised products, but it’s only a matter of pennies. This is different from meat, where an organic chicken breast fillet can easily cost 10 euros, while the conventional variety is available for as little as 3 euros.

Organic chicken farms are getting bigger and bigger. Often up to 30,000 animals live on one farm. The trend is similar in other production sectors of the organic industry. This makes people suspicious: Is this factory farming and a betrayal of organic principles, animal welfare and the environment?

Friedrich Behrens – 62 years old, cool-eyed, rarely laughs – is managing director of the Furstenhof producer association. With 14 farms in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and more than 300,000 laying hens, the company network is Germany’s largest producer of organic eggs. It supplies the private labels of Rewe, Edeka, Alnatura, denn’s and other supermarket chains. Furstenhof produces around 10 percent of Germany’s organic eggs: 80 million a year, 220,000 a day.

Even on this hot day in June, anyone who wants to enter Furstenhof’s barns has to slip a full-body suit over their clothes and put their shoes in plastic overshoes. "As a hygienic safety measure for the hens," Behrens explains. "So you don’t carry germs from one location to the next."

A wooden door swings open. Thousands of chickens cluck and crow. There’s a smell of droppings. On the walls is a layer of white dust formed from dried excrement and straw. A large fan hums under the roof.

The nests are crooked

Behrens has 23,000 chickens kept in this barn building in Walkendorf, southeast of Rostock. He himself hasn’t been here for months, he says. After all, Behrens is not a trained farmer, but has a degree in retail sales. Two employees look after the animals here, says the entrepreneur. In purely mathematical terms, one person looks after 11,500 hens.

Thin wooden panels divide the 120-meter-long building into eight rooms, each of which houses about 2,900 animals. The brown-feathered hens stand on two metal racks that run through the entire room. The top rack hangs just below the corrugated metal ceiling. Below, some hens lay eggs in nests on plastic mats. The mats are at an angle, and the egg rolls onto a conveyor belt that takes it to the packing station in front of the coop.

In front of the nests runs a pipe with red nipples for the hens to drink from. Further up, a conveyor belt pulls dry feed through a long, narrow metal trough. The chickens’ droppings land on another belt that transports them outside twice a week.

Fear can catch up with them at any time. On the subway, at her desk, in the cafe. Read how our author learned to love her fear in the taz.am wochenende of August 13/14, 2016. Also: In order to produce organic eggs as cheaply as possible, some farmers use all the gray areas of the EU guidelines. How much organic is there in organic eggs? And: Turkey between "cleansing" and martyr worship. Pınar ogunc on a society in which a witch-hunt atmosphere seems to be settling in. At the kiosk, eKiosk or right away in the practical weekend subscription.

In front of and behind the building is the outdoor area. Each group of 2,900 chickens has a strip delineated with fences. The chickens have pecked away the grass on more than half of the area, scratching veritable craters in the dry, sandy soil. Only at the end of the open area, where hardly any chicken dares to go for fear of predators, is the ground covered with green. Aerial photos show that the runs have been similarly bare for at least the past three years.

Yet the organic regulations state, "Outdoor runs for poultry must consist primarily of vegetative cover." This requirement is intended to make it more difficult for soil to be eroded by wind and water, for nutrients from chicken excretions to enter groundwater, and for chickens to absorb pollutants through soil particles. In addition, a green run offers the chickens significantly more employment opportunities and attracts them outside.

Behrens confirms to the taz that the ground cover was too low in one of the eight runs. For him, however, this was not a violation of the eco-regulation, because the treetops on the premises would also count as vegetation cover. Nevertheless, he now blocks off parts of the runs so that the grass can recover there – but only 0.2 square meters per chicken, which experts say is not enough for permanent greening.

Successful means: large, efficient, unideological

The responsible state office for agriculture in Rostock denies that tree canopies count as vegetation cover. In addition, the authority states that several outlets are affected. Why does the office not ensure that these grievances are finally remedied? The answer from Rostock: The ecological control had checked the plant regularly. Just one had threatened the enterprise with sanctions and demanded remedy. "Conditions were imposed."

It is not only on Furstenhof farms that the vegetation cover has largely been picked away. On two organic farms, each with more than 30,000 chickens in Brandenburg, the runs were also almost completely bare when the taz visited in mid-May. For Lower Saxony and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, where most organic laying hens are kept, food safety authorities have confirmed that there are problems with the greenery in the runs.

The more chickens live in a coop and use the same run, the faster they peck away at the turf. So do you need to keep fewer animals in a building, Mr. Behrens? Then, the entrepreneur answers, everything would become more expensive. If the chickens were spread out over more locations, he would need more employees, more feeding equipment, more conveyors for eggs and manure, more machines to sort the eggs, more money for the hauler, who would then have to pick up the eggs at even more locations.

The more chickens that live in a coop and use the same run, the faster they peck away at the turf

"The bigger, the more effective the farm can become," Behrens says. "We are not the extreme greens who see everything only through ecological glasses." He prefers to speak of a "tidy middle ground" between ecology and economy.

Behrens knows his way around huge operations. He was co-owner of Heidegold, one of the largest egg marketing companies in Germany, which his grandfather co-founded. Conventional caged eggs made the Lower Saxony company big. In other words, the kind that cookbook author Matthaei is so afraid of.

In 2001, Behrens sold his share and invested in organic in the east. He saw the economic potential.

Behrens’ giant barns clash with EU regulations not only because of bare runs. The EU also stipulates that "each poultry house accommodates a maximum of 3,000 laying hens."

What is a coop, anyway?

Nevertheless, Behrens is allowed to sell eggs with the valuable organic seal. He owes this above all to a powerful helper: Till Backhaus. The SPD politician has been Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania’s Minister of Agriculture since 1998 and is thus also responsible for overseeing Behrens’ organic company.

Backhaus graduated as an agricultural engineer in the GDR and was then, among other things, head of department in agricultural production cooperatives. LPGs were industrially organized: very large, highly specialized, machine-heavy. This is the world that shaped Backhaus’ ideas about agriculture. So the politician and the agro-industrialist Behrens are a good fit.

"The term ‘barn,’ " Backhaus informs us, "is not defined in EU legislation for organic production." That’s why he thinks it’s permissible to simply house several 3,000sf "stables" in one building – just as Behrens does. The supervisory authorities of all federal states agreed on this interpretation at a conference in 2001: Each barn is a separate building.

Backhaus didn’t care what his officials had agreed with those of the other states. That was easy because others also broke the consensus.

For example, the CDU politician Hans-Heinrich Ehlen. In October 2003, as agriculture minister of Lower Saxony, Ehlen ensured that a previously unknown decree was issued, according to which stalls for laying hens had to be separated from one another only by walls. It was sufficient that they "prevent a view into the neighboring barn." Conveyor belts for feed, eggs or manure, the water supply and ventilation could be "shared across several barns," according to the document obtained by taz. Lower Saxony then enforced these formulations for all of Germany at another conference in 2007.

Behrens says he can’t remember if he talked to authorities to get all that done. But what is certain is that industry representatives lobbied to overturn the 3,000 limit.

Mecklenburg Minister Backhaus denies such contacts with Behrens or any of his longtime competitors, but Ehlen, who lives in Lower Saxony, admits, "There are people coming who say, ‘I want to invest.’ I can’t get by with 3,000 units."

As it happens, Behrens lives in Ehlen’s constituency. Coincidentally, a close associate of Behrens used to play soccer with Ehlen. To this day, Ehlen politically champions Behrens’ causes. So did Behrens also negotiate with him about the stables? "I can tell you now quite badly, and that would also not be good to say: he and he has approached me."

One can also live from a small farm

Ehlen is now 66 years old and a simple member of the state parliament. He still believes the arrangements of that time were right. "The idea was to take advantage of possible synergies," he says. Investors were supposed to be able to save money by being allowed to build several "stables" under one roof.

Ehlen doesn’t understand that these mass-produced barns could contradict the principles of organic farming. He is a conventional farmer through and through. "That’s one thing ideologues are. And Heiner Ehlen is a practitioner" – that is his credo. "In the end, families have to be able to get an income from it. You can’t live on 3,000 chickens." And the bare runs? This problem cannot be solved by stables with fewer animals.

Hans Dieter Greve from Schulp near Rendsburg manages all that. The 54-year-old, green work suit, collared shirt, straw hat, has two coops on his farm – with only 1,750 chickens in one and 2,000 in the other. The run is so large that Greve regularly closes off part of it so that the grass can recover. The farmer also keeps another 2,400 hens in two mobile coops, which he moves a few feet each week.

Organic: Germany keeps 4 million organic laying hens, according to the Federal Statistical Office. In 2014, more than 70 percent of them lived on farms with more than 10,000 hens, and more than 24 percent even on farms with more than 30,000. So organic and factory farming are not mutually exclusive, yet organic husbandry has advantages: The EU prescribes outdoor access, and no more than six hens may live in a barn on one square meter. Farmers are not allowed to amputate beak parts and must provide the animals almost exclusively with feed from organic farming.

Conventional: At the end of 2015, 63 percent of laying hens lived in conventional "floor management." That is, without an outdoor run. Only 18 percent were in the "free-range" system with an outdoor run. In both systems, nine hens share one square meter of house. The feed consists of genetically modified soy, for example. Amputations are the rule. Eight percent of the hens lived in cages.

So that’s a total of 6,150 hens, in four coops, tended by one and a half workers. Greve can live so well on this that his son wants to take over the farm. Greve sells his eggs primarily to the organic supermarket Alnatura and the drugstore chain Budnikowsky.

"You don’t need 30,000 hens, and there are also too many to take sufficient care of each individual animal," he says. Greve criticizes agribusinessmen for trying to dominate the market thanks to their influence on policy and their lower cost per egg. Behind him, the engines of a huge container ship roar; his fields are located directly on the Kiel Canal. Greve, actually a giant, suddenly seems quite small.

Is it still worth buying eggs from organic farms?

After all, the person who replaced Ehlen in 2010 and is now the Minister of Agriculture in Lower Saxony, Christian Meyer, a Green, is helping him out. "In the future, a barn must be the same as a building. And a maximum of 3,000 organic laying hens may then be kept in it," says Meyer.

The stable buildings should not stand next to each other like row houses, but have sufficient distance. Then more animals would regularly go outdoors, and the nitrogen from their excreta would be better distributed. "Consumers do not want mass stables in organic animal husbandry. The EU organic regulation should therefore be developed in this direction as quickly as possible."

He rejects Germany or individual German states going it alone so that domestic farmers are not harmed in competition.

The EU Commission in Brussels could help. Its bio experts sit in an eight-story block of glass and concrete. Long corridors with low ceilings, English, French and German come out of the offices. Here, they’ve known for a long time that many German chicken farmers don’t follow the rules.

For a year and a half, the Commission has been officially processing the case as a complaint – so far without result. Even the EU Commission’s draft for a new organic regulation does not define what a coop is. It is uncertain whether Brussels will take action against the mass stables and bare runs.

Is it still worth buying organic eggs? "Absolutely," says Bettina Matthaei, the cookbook author. Not only because she finds organic eggs fresher and tastier. But also because even in the largest organic farm, the animals are still better off than in most conventional farms, where on average twice as many animals live – without any outdoor space.

Matthaei has solved the matter for himself as follows: "I buy my eggs at the weekly market. There they really still come from small farms."