Most 'Organic' Eggs You Buy Are Far From Organic

There's a growing divide in organic food and agriculture. Consumers hungry for nutritionally superior food that has been ethically produced are the target of giant factory farms that have muscled into organic agriculture. Their emergence and rapid growth is challenging family farm operators who have traditionally helped nurture and grow the popular organic sector.

Nowhere is this divide more apparent than in certified organic egg production. Some industrial-scale operations manage as many as two million hens on a single factory where they confine up to 200,000 birds in separate buildings. These corporate agribusinesses, mostly engaged in caged, conventional egg production, now dominate the organic egg market.

The owners of these facilities have been aided and abetted by inaction at the USDA, despite protests and formal legal complaints detailing violations of federal organic rules and regulations. Confining organic birds on “factory farms?” One Iowa Amish egg producer, whose farm I visited with a few thousand birds, said to me, “How could that be?”

The organic standards are clear: All organic animals must have access to the outdoors. The only people this regulation is not clear to are the political appointees and bureaucrats at the USDA who enjoy the largess of corporate agribusiness lobbyists.

The Cornucopia Institute's report, Scrambled Eggs, aims to unmask fraud that is occurring while spotlighting exemplary management practices employed by many family-scale organic farmers engaged in egg production. The report incorporates six years of research into organic egg production.

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An accompanying scorecard highlights the best brands available nationally, empowering consumers so they can vote in the marketplace supporting the true heroes in this industry while simultaneously securing authentic organic eggs for their families.

The report and scorecard also profile the top producers who are going well beyond the minimum in organics by rotationally grazing their birds and regularly moving mobile chicken coops onto fresh grass—creating the most flavorful, nutrient dense eggs. 

Cornucopia staff visited or surveilled, via aerial photography and satellite imagery, a large percentage of certified organic egg producers in the United States, and surveyed all name-brand and private-label industry marketers. From our research, it’s obvious that a high percentage of the organic eggs on the market are illegal. At best, these factory farm eggs should be labeled "produced with organic feed," rather than bearing the USDA-certified organic logo.

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The Delta Egg facility in Chase, Kansas, has over 600,000 birds. Delta was acquired by the agribusiness giant Cal-Maine. (image courtesy Cornucopia)

A key sticking point in the divergent production strategies between factory farms and family farmers is the federal requirement that birds have access to the outdoors and be allowed to exhibit their natural behaviors. Most of the giant hen warehouses provide no legitimate access to the outdoors. In some cases, the operators of the industrial-scale facilities provide tiny enclosed porches, with roofs and concrete or wood flooring, and call these structures "outdoors" (courtesy of a work-around blessed by the USDA). Even then, these porches are so small that 95% or more of the birds have absolutely no access to this so-called outdoor space.

In contrast, after visiting scores of producers in 11 states, we can conclude that the vast majority of family-scale producers are at least complying with minimal organic regulations. Laying hens living on pasture-based farms tend to be under less stress due to their greater opportunity to exercise and ability to engage in instinctive foraging behaviors that lessen aggression toward their flock mates. Pastured hens also frequently live longer productive lives instead of the single year that is common on industrial-scale farms.

Organic customers are increasingly aware of a growing body of scientific literature confirming the nutritional superiority of eggs when the birds have an opportunity to eat fresh forage, seeds, worms and insects.

Part of Cornucopia's intent, and the basis of this research and report, is to protect the livelihoods of ethical family-scale organic farmers. These farmers are being placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage by corporations that are more than willing to ignore the rules and cut corners in pursuit of profit.  

Until the USDA decides to enforce the law, consumers and wholesale buyers can, take the law into their own hands by empowering themselves with the knowledge necessary to make good, discerning purchasing decisions by accessing Cornucopia’s Scrambled Eggs report and the organic egg brand scorecard.

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