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

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.

Another issue is whether the hens are given access to the outdoors at a young age. Hens do not begin laying until around 17 weeks of age, and egg operations often obtain their hens from suppliers who raise the birds up to that point. If hens are not allowed outside during those first 17 weeks -- as many are not -- then they will likely avoid going outdoors their entire lives, even if they are given the opportunity. Cornucopia Institute found that some operations allow the birds out around six weeks of age, at which point they are old enough to safely do so. Part of providing laying hens with meaningful access to the outdoors is providing that access at a young enough age, such as six weeks, so they will continue to go outdoors (if given the opportunity) once they reach egg-laying age and arrive at the egg operation where they will live the remainder of their lives.

As much as 80 percent of all organic eggs come from industrial-scale egg producers who provide their birds with token access to the outdoors or no access at all. The remaining 20 percent of eggs coming from family-scale farms range from token or no access to the outdoors to adequate or ideal scenarios where all of the hens are able to go outside. Certainly a few questions should be asked here. Are consumers being misled or overcharged about the product they are getting when they buy organic eggs? And how important is it that laying hens have access to outdoors? The benefits of access to pasture are obvious (healthier, and some say tastier, eggs) but is that an unrealistic expectation to ask of the large-scale operations that provide the majority of organic eggs?

"I think we have to have rules that square the public expectation with reality," says bestselling author Michael Pollan. "Access to the outdoors must really mean that animals get out on grass, not just have a little door opening on a little lawn, or a concrete porch, as is sometimes the case. There is a great risk to organic agriculture in this sort of disconnect."

Paul Shapiro, senior director of the Factory Farming Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), calls the requirement for access to outdoors "vague," and says it "should be clarified." That said, he pointed out that hens in even the most industrial organic operation have it better than the 95 percent of laying hens in America who are kept in battery cages. Caged hens are each given 67 square inches of space, compared to 144 to 216 square inches (one to 1.5 square feet) given to cage-free and organic birds. This is not exactly luxurious by chicken standards -- backyard chicken owners are often encouraged to provide each bird two square feet in a coop and more in an outdoor chicken run -- but it's a significant improvement.

Shapiro described cage-free industrial egg operations (all organic eggs are cage-free), saying that most provide perches and dust bathing facilities to allow for at least some semblance of natural chicken behaviors. "Perches increase bone strength and the birds want to do it," he said. "Remember, these are descendants of jungle fowl with feet designed to wrap around branches." Dust bathing, another natural behavior, helps eliminate any parasites that might be nestled in a chicken's feathers and is something science shows these birds are very motivated to do. Typically, these facilities have a long row of nesting boxes that allow eggs to roll onto a conveyor belt for automated collection. Air quality and sanitation can be good or bad, depending on the management of the facility.

To be clear, Shapiro supports allowing chickens to go outside, citing evidence that access to forage (i.e. grass) improves chickens' immune functions and that such enrichment is generally good for animal welfare. At the same time, he felt that while the organic regulations' "access to the outdoors" provision needs to be clarified so it's meaningful, any cage-free operation provides significant improvements over battery cage operations that provide the vast majority of the nation's eggs and "it's important not to belittle those improvements" without forgetting that "it's not exactly Old MacDonald's farm."

Mark Kastel of Cornucopia Institute agrees with HSUS that industrial organic eggs provide an improvement over conventional eggs, but selling them as organic, as eggs from chickens that have access to the outdoors, is misleading. He suggests their label should say the chickens were fed organic feed instead of claiming the eggs are truly organic. And, it seems the other major point of consensus is that the organic rules should be clarified so consumers understand what they are getting when they purchase organic eggs.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is meeting at the end of October. The Board may discuss what "access to outdoors" actually means and set standards on how much space an egg operation must provide per chicken of outdoor area and whether wooden or concrete porches count as outdoors. The Cornucopia Institute offers a letter citizens can send to the NOSB prior to its meeting. Citizens can also write their own comments and submit them to the NOSB at (Docket AMS-NOP-10-0068). Last, if you buy organic eggs and you want to know what you are getting, Cornucopia Institute has created a scorecard to help you navigate your supermarket egg case.

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