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Are Organic Eggs Really Healthier and Tastier and from Happier Chickens than Conventional Eggs?

In the best cases, the eggs are healthier for you, and more ecologically and humanely produced than the conventional alternative. But which are the best?

What are you getting when you pay upwards of $4 per dozen for organic eggs? In the best cases, the eggs are healthier and more ecologically and humanely produced than their conventional alternative. In the worst cases, the hens who laid your eggs ate organic feed and lived outside of cages -- still an improvement over conventional eggs -- but may have never seen sunshine or foraged for insects or worms outdoors. A new report by the Cornucopia Institute exposes the truth behind the organic egg industry and the vast range of interpretations to the law's requirement for "access to outdoors."

At the heart of the issue is the simple fact that the ideals of organic agriculture do not mesh well with industrial livestock production. In the best production systems, hens are allowed access to pasture, using either mobile coops or permanent houses with access to a large enough grassy outdoor area so all of the chickens can enjoy it without destroying the vegetation. Two studies -- one by Penn State and one by Mother Earth News -- found that hens raised on pasture produce healthier eggs than hens raised on commercial feed alone. Both studies found that pastured eggs contained at least double the vitamin E and omega-3 fatty acids compared to conventional eggs. Additionally, Mother Earth News found the pastured eggs contained less cholesterol and saturated fat and more vitamin A than conventional eggs. And, on the most ecological farms, eggs are only one of the many products and services chickens provide; they also produce fertilizer and help out with insect and weed control.

In other words, organic customers can get a lot for the extra they pay for organic eggs. But, in 2002, as the ink was still drying on the organic standards, an operation called Country Hen found a way to undermine them. That was the year the organic standards went into effect. Country Hen applied for organic certification for its Massachusetts egg operation. To provide the thousands of hens residing in its two-story barns access to outdoors, it provided small screened-in porches with no grass at all. The organic certifier refused to certify the operation.

Country Hen went to a second certifier, which came to the same conclusion as the first. If Country Hen wanted organic certification, it must provide its hens access to the outdoors. At that point, Country Hen went to a friendlier organization: the Bush USDA. The USDA's National Organic Program came back three days later and ordered the certifier to grant Country Hen organic certification. This decision contradicted a 2002 clarification issued by the National Organic Standards Board, a group that advises the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) on organic standards, saying that "bare surfaces other than soil (e.g. metal, concrete, wood) do not meet the intent" of the rule requiring that laying hens are given access to the outdoors. (According to Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, things are very different at the Obama USDA, compared to the Bush years.)

Once the government sided with Country Hen, organic certifiers began certifying other industrial-scale egg operations with no more than a small wooden or concrete porch for the birds to go outside. Some egg operations were even certified organic with notes from their veterinarians claiming the birds shouldn't go outdoors. As Kastel points out, when thousands of birds live in one large barn, if they are only given one small door at one end of the barn to exit onto a porch that would only fit a small number of chickens, most birds have no access to the outdoors at all.

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