When you’re frying up those organic, free-range eggs on a Saturday morning, visions of hens running around outside, pecking at bugs and happily clucking about under the sun may come to mind. The reality is, though, most industrial organic-egg producers aren’t creating anything close to those living conditions. As it turns out, organic-egg standards might not live up to your standards.

Many organic egg-laying hens are living in huge warehouses, and, although not crammed into tiny cages stacked from floor to ceiling (the norm in nonorganic-egg production), tens of thousands of birds in each house means each could only have a few square feet on a porch to qualify for “outdoor access.”

“This entire incident started because a bureaucrat at the USDA [U.S. Department of Agriculture] during the Bush administration said it was OK for organic-egg producers to confine their birds,” explains senior farm policy analyst Mark Kastel, cofounder of The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group based in Wisconsin.

Under the existing regulations, the birds laying organic eggs need to have outdoor access. “And they need to be able, under the law, to express their natural instinctive behaviors,” Kastel says. “For chickens, that means to forage in an area with fresh grass, bugs, and other culturally interesting environmental features.”

A recent report in Sustainable Food News found recommendations put forth by an outside consulting firm to improve animal welfare are not going to be pursued by USDA’s National Organic Program (NOP). The report notes the move would cause many industrial organic producers to switch from organic to conventional methods to control costs, including the costs related to reducing flocks to allow more space for the hens. (The report fails to take into consideration the economic damage being done to legitimate organic-egg producers who are currently following the law, notes Kastel.)

The proposed regulations called for dust bath and scratching space for chickens, more space to roam indoors, and more exit doors in the warehouse so chickens can go outside and forage in a more natural setting (in other words, grass, not concrete or screened-in porches). Still, the NOP isn’t making these changes a priority, Kastel says.

“After being lobbied by corporate agribusiness, the Obama administration is unwilling to enforce the law and assure that chickens have legitimate access to the outdoors and are able to exhibit their natural instinctive behaviors,” Kastel says. “This puts ethical, family-scale organic-egg producers at a competitive disadvantage and makes the Obama/Vilsack USDA a coconspirator in taking advantage of the goodwill of organic consumers.”

To be clear, organic eggs are still better than their conventional counterparts, Kastel says. Even though industrial-organic egg producers are generally not letting their chickens outside to enjoy natural behavior, there are clear benefits to any type of organic egg.

Organic laying hens are raised on organic feed free of:
• Antibiotics
• Arsenic
• Chemical pesticides
• Genetically engineered ingredients.

While most organic eggs on grocery stores shelves may come from these huge industrial organic warehouse farms, there are many smaller organic-egg farmers who raise their chickens outside on pasture and on organic grain—the gold standard, according to Kastel.

Find a Better Brand: Organic Egg Scorecard

Chickens raised out on pasture have been shown to produce nutritionally superior eggs while enjoying a more natural lifestyle. If you buy local, pastured eggs and want to avoid farming chemicals, though, be sure your producer is using certified-organic grain, Kastel suggests. “If you are not buying chickens and eggs that are fed certified-organic feed you are, indirectly, consuming lots of agrichemicals, and possibly drugs, banned in organics,” Kastel notes.

For more information on decoding egg carton labels, including “free-range,” read The Truth about Your Eggs.



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