Next time you're at the grocery store aisle picking out eggs, you might need to think twice before assuming one organic brand is interchangeable with another. According to the Cornucopia Institute (CI), a non-profit which promotes economic justice for family scale farming, all organic eggs are not alike. They recently released the report Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture.
The report contains an Organic Egg Scorecard that rates 70 name brand as well as additional private label organic egg producers based on 22 factors that the organization deems critical to the typical organic consumer. The main rating criteria include outdoor access, outdoor management, indoor quality of life and welfare, and organic principles of farm interdependence and ecological sustainability.
The highest rating, five eggs, goes to companies CI considers ethical family farms, companies that go beyond national organic standards. Most of these companies are small, local distributors. The producers given the lowest rating, one egg, are those CI believes are in violation of organic standards of animal welfare and/or were not transparent with their practices during CI’s research. Sadly, many of the single-egg brands are the ones most easily available to consumers. Whole Foods' 365 brand, Trader Joe's brand, O Organic by Safeway, and Costco's Kirkland brand all received a single egg for their sub-par performance.
The report, conducted over a one year period, details how organic egg producers vary greatly in their interpretation of the Federal USDA Organic Standards, “Paths are diverging in the organic-egg-producing community: One path affords more outdoor access and more diversity on the farm; and another path has led to large-scale industrialization motivated by profit.”
A major point of contention for CI is interpretation of the organic standards requirement that laying hens have access to the outdoors and direct sunlight. During their research, CI discovered that many industrial-scale producers confined thousands of hens inside hen houses with the only outdoor access being a small wooden or concrete porch. Some provided no outdoor access at all, using veterinarian statements which claimed potential risk of disease as justification for keeping hens indoors.
While only a few companies in number, industrial scale producers make up 80 percent of all organic eggs produced and thus their production method prevails as the majority. However their system does not account for the diversity of approaches within the organic egg business.
On the other end of the spectrum are pasture-based organic farms, with either fixed housing (which provides adequate access to surrounding pasture) or rotational coops (that move within the pasture so that hens may graze and the soil is fertilized for future vegetation). Advocates of these pasture-raised systems think that giving hens the ability to play out their natural behavior and thus forage, scratch, run, flap their wings, and obtain some or all of their diet from grass and insects, is essential to a hen’s overall preventative health as well as the quality of the end egg product.
While the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) is currently in heavy debate over the definition of terms like ‘meaningful outdoor access,’ the consumer at least has some tools at their disposal to try and make the most informed purchasing decision possible about organic eggs. If interested in other ratings, check out Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Dairy Report & Scorecard and Organic Soy Scorecard.
Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.