The Organic Egg Scorecard
At the beginning of the summer, I wrote about discovering that all my assumptions about “free range” eggs were wrong. I thought they were probably more environmentally-friendly than conventional eggs, but it turns out, they generally have a greater environmental impact, largely because it takes more feed and water to produce the same amount of eggs. I thought they were supposed to be more nutritious than conventional eggs, but it turns out that comparisons of key nutrients are totally inconsistent. I thought they were better-tasting, but it turns out that in blind taste tests, no one can tell the difference in how they taste. Furthermore, eggs sold with “cage free” and “organic” labels are almost all laid by chickens with no access to pasture and sunlight and who use their greater freedom primarily to attack and cannibalize each other (probably because of the stress induced by their crowded quarters), which doesn’t seem like a very meaningful improvement in chicken welfare.
Pastured eggs are a whole different story—they may still be less efficient than battery-cage eggs (although the more the chickens rely on grubs, seeds, and fresh forage instead of grain, the better they should be on that measure) and they’re still indistinguishable in blind taste tests, but they are reliably more nutritious according to multiple measures and they come from chickens with meaningful access to sunlight and room to move around and forage and scratch. Pastured chickens tend to live almost three times as long as factory chickens and they suffer far fewer injuries from fellow chickens, which is good for both efficiency and animal welfare.
So if you want optimally nutritious and humanely-produced eggs, and you have access to pastured eggs, and you can afford them, that’s the way to go. Unfortunately, aside from buying eggs from a farmer’s market, a neighbor, or setting up your own coop, it was virtually impossible to know whether the specialty eggs you were buying came from pastured hens. Until recently: a couple of weeks ago, the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy think tank based in Wisconsin, published a massive report on Organic-certified egg farms which includes a scorecard. All the producers rated three
stars “eggs” or higher provide “meaningful outdoor space” (well, it’s “under construction” at some of the three-egg places but already exists at four and five “egg” producers). Five-egg producers “raise their hens in mobile housing on well-managed and ample pasture or in ﬁxed housing with intensively managed rotated pasture.”
Voter Information for Citizen-Shoppers
As the “5-egg” rating description also notes, most of these producers sell their eggs through farmer’s markets, co-ops, and independent natural foods stores, but eggs from one of the five-egg producers—Vital Farms from Austin, Texas—may be available at Whole Foods Markets nationwide and many of the three-egg producers distribute across large regions. One, Organic Valley, is also available nationwide.
I’m a little disappointed that the Cornucopia Institute included producers who refused to participate in the study in their official rankings. It seems like it would have been more honest to create a separate “N/A” category and let people draw their own conclusions. The only private-label (or store brand) producer they have a rating for is Whole Foods’ 365 Organic, which got the lowest numerical and egg-rating available for being, “produced on industrial farms that house hundreds of thousands of birds and do not grant the birds meaningful outdoor access.” I agree with the institute that it’s probably safe to assume the same is true of Trader Joe’s store brand, Meijer Organics, Costco’s Kirkland Signature, Safeway’s O Organic, and etc. but I still prefer it when people make the limits of their actual research clear.
Nonetheless, the scorecard is a good way to figure out whether there are any pastured eggs available where you live and shop. For people who already make a habit of buying “free range” or “organic” eggs, now you can find out whether those brands really follow the kinds of egg production practices you want to support. Unfortunately, if you’ve been buying Eggland’s Best, Full Circle, or store-brand “cage free” or “organic” eggs, chances are you’re just paying a premium for eggs that are no healthier or tastier (no matter how much darker the yolks are) and come from less-efficient and more-likely-to-cannibalize-each-other chickens.
Photo by John Patriquin, Portland Press Herald via USATODAY.com
In fact, the report’s major finding is that most eggs bearing the USDA Organic logo don’t meet the minimum standards for “Organic” egg production or most consumer’s expectations.“Organic” eggs are supposed to come from chickens who have access to the outdoors, but the vast majority of them (80% or more) come from huge producers who just build a tiny porch adjacent to their massive chicken warehouses, often measuring just 3 to 5 percent of the square footage of the main building. A couple of those producers are quoted in the Cornucopia Institute press release about the report:
“We are strongly opposed to any requirement for hens to have access to the soil,” said Kurt Kreher of Kreher’s Sunrise Farms in Clarence, N.Y. And Bart Slaugh, director of quality assurance at Eggland’s Best, a marketer of both conventional and organic eggs based in Jeffersonville, Pa., noted that, “The push for continually expanding outdoor access … needs to stop.”
So if outdoor access for chickens is important to you and you’re a believer in “voting with your fork,” this scorecard is like your egg election-day cheat sheet.
This Is What Food Reform Looks Like
However, the Cornucopia Institute isn’t mounting a big publicity campaign to get consumers to go out and shop differently, probably because even if they could convince everyone to seek out pastured eggs, they’d run into a big problem immediately: there just aren’t enough pastured eggs to go around. Furthermore, trying to reform the food system by reforming consumer demand is an expensive, slow, and uncertain process. How many people have to stop buying the bad “Organic certified” eggs before producers become willing to invest in the infrastructure required to give chickens meaningful outdoor access? In the meantime, if there aren’t enough pastured eggs to go around, should people just stop eating eggs entirely or default to conventional eggs? What kind of price premium are people really willing to pay for pastured eggs? How many consumers will just say “screw it, I’ll just take the cheap, efficient eggs” which are still totally delicious and, if not optimally healthy, still probably not going to kill them? The relationship between consumer demand and supply is not as simple as “build it and they will come.”
What the Cornucopia Institute is actually doing instead sounds like a much better plan: they’ve filed legal complaints against producers that offer chickens no access to the outdoors or only have very small enclosed porches but still sell their eggs under the UDSA Organic label. They used the same strategy to persuade the USDA to to create better standards for Organic-certified dairy, which are being phased in gradually through June 2011 (and basically require ruminants like cows, sheep and goats to obtain a significant amount of their feed intake from grazing on pasture). In other words, they’re asking the USDA to make the “Organic” label mean what consumers think it means, and what the USDA’s own language makes it sound like it means. They’re trying to make the USDA hold egg producers to a higher standard.
Of course, none of this has anything to do with the vast majority of the eggs produced, sold, and consumed in the U.S., which don’t bear any kind of specialty label. Also, even if the Cornucopia Institute and allied groups actually succeed in getting the USDA to beef up and enforce their standards for “organic” eggs, the immediate effect will probably be a reduction in the amount of “organic” eggs available and an increase in the price of eggs that retain the “organic” label. More people will probably be priced out of the specialty egg market. But it might actually have a small but meaningful effect on the quality of specialty eggs and the welfare of a small minority of egg-laying hens. And it would give wealthier consumers a more meaningful choice at the supermarket. Um, yay?