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jennifer boynton headshot

Pasture-Raised vs. Industrial Organic: An Egg-cellent Stakeholder Engagement Lesson

Eggs used to simply be an affordable, easy source of protein. No longer. Selecting eggs has become among the most complicated things I do at the grocery store. My local shop has 12 different brands all of which feature advertising and imagery to make them appealing to customers who care about health and the environment. They are organic, pasture-farmed, grain-fed, humane, natural, free range or cage-free. TriplePundit readers will likely know that there's a wide range of legal obligations associated with these terms. However few require the farmers to raise happy chickens like the ones featured on the packaging.

I've resorted to buying my eggs at the local farmers market. The farmers market may not be a realistic choice for many readers, but I trust the farmers and, in some cases, I've even been to their farms and seen firsthand the plucky little chickens pecking in the dirt.

That's why I was surprised - and pleased - to hear that the biggest farmers market in San Francisco had revised its standards for egg sellers, limiting approved vendors to those who pasture-raise their chickens (i.e. keep them outside where they can peck and scratch and eat grass and bugs) and kicking out farmers who keep their hens in barns and feed them grain exclusively. Said CUESA in a public statement:

For many of us, labels like "free-range" and "cage-free" on a carton of eggs bring to mind images of sustainably raised hens doing what hens do naturally: clucking, foraging, and scratching in lush, green pastures. But many consumers may be surprised to learn that free-range chickens often do not spend much, if any, of their lives frolicking in the sunshine....

In an effort to support these sustainable practices, CUESA will be adopting a new policy in February 2012 that will allow only pasture-raised eggs to be sold by farmers in our markets. We made this policy change because we support this humane manner of raising hens, and we believe pastured eggs are what customers expect to find at the farmers market.

So far so good. The story gets interesting when you realize that the change impacts only one vendor: Petaluma Farms.

If you live on the west coast, and you've bought eggs, you've probably stared in confusion at one of the Petaluma Farms' family of brands: Judy's Family Farms, Rock Island Fertile Brown Eggs, Gold Circle DHA Omega-3 Eggs, and Uncle Eddie's Cage Free Eggs can be found in supermarkets from San Diego to Seattle.

With a massive reach like that, it's no wonder Petaluma Farms raises their chickens indoors. They are so-called "industrial organics" raised on organic feed without preventative antibiotics, but not quite in the spirit of what consumers expect when they see "cage free," "organic" and pictures of hens pecking in the grass on their egg cartons.

Said CUESA about their decision:

CUESA's new policy affects only one market seller: Petaluma Farms, which offers cage-free but not pasture-raised eggs. We discussed this change with the owners and assured them that when their practices meet our 2012 standards, they will be invited back to sell in the market.

That's kind of cold, isn't it? It made me wonder about the relationship between Petaluma Farms and CUESA -- ideally there would be some communication happening between the market and the farmers before things got to this point. I reached out to Petaluma for a comment, but didn't hear back. If they respond, we'll update this article.

Petaluma Farms has a history of bad reviews for its farming practices. The Cornucopia Institute gave Judy's Family Farms a 1/5, the lowest score possible, which indicates "industrial organics/or not open enough to participate."

Their review included the following statement about the farm:

Petaluma Farms, a large-scale egg producer in Petaluma, CA, produces both organic and conventional cage-free eggs for sale under several brand names, which include Judy’s Family Farm, Rock Island, Uncle Eddie’s Wild Hen Farm and Gold Circle. They also produce eggs for the 365 label owned by Whole Foods and Organic Valley for Western US markets.

Their organic laying hens are not granted outdoor access—their organic certifying agent has granted them a permanent exemption from granting outdoor access based on the “threat” of avian influenza. Other organic egg producers in their area do grant outdoor access for their chickens, making this an unconvincing excuse for permanent confinement.

Petaluma Farms states on its website that its organic chickens are “raised to conform to USDA organic standards”—a questionable statement since the standards require “year-round access for all animals to the outdoors,” a requirement to which Petaluma Farms clearly does not conform.

While the owners of Petaluma Farms didn't make themselves available for the researchers, they did issue a statement rebutting the Cornucopia Institute's findings:
The Cornucopia Institute is a Wisconsin-based group that we had never heard of before; their website does not indicate a high degree of expertise in California agriculture, organic egg farming or veterinary medicine. Given all of this, we chose not to participate in this institute’s survey. Yet amazingly, and without ever setting foot on our property, these people somehow felt qualified to pass judgment on our operations from several thousand miles away!

  • Judy’s Family Farms was one of the first certified organic egg farms in California and has been a leader in promoting the health and well-being of egg laying birds on farms;

  • We possess the highest organic certification levels from the most trusted of independent organic auditors;

  • The report is wrong about outdoor access. We have never claimed to pasture, but rather provide our hens access to the outdoors via a sun porch, which is a method accepted and approved under national organic standards. Our birds also enjoy direct sunlight, scratch areas, perches and natural ventilation because the sides of our barns are open (with screens to keep the wild birds and predators out).

While Petaluma Farms' eggs may meet organic standards to the letter, they don't meet the standards that farmers market customers, or indeed many organic-egg-buying grocery shoppers, expect. Petaluma Farms must realize that the outdoor experience is of key importance to customers, just look at their packaging compared to their living conditions:

We applaud CUESA's decision to increase its egg standards to match those its customers expect to find when they pick up a dozen.

While no company deserves to be called out and embarrassed, we do think that Petaluma Farms would be well served to take a hard look at the disconnect between their marketing and their actual farming, as well as the messages that its stakeholders are trying to share about the importance of pasture farming. It's clear that Petaluma Farms understands the importance of appearing approachable, the packaging tells the story of a small farm, as does all the folksy, first person copy on the website:

We raise all of our chickens from 1 day of age. My mom likes to be around when we get the new chicks to make sure that they are well taken care of. I've never quite understood the sentiment, but I guess once a mom, always a mom.

This sort of thing would be incredibly charming if it were an accurate portrayal of Petaluma Farms' relationship with its stakeholders, but the recent public controversies with the Cornucopia Institute and CUESA tell a different story. Petaluma Farms also didn't return our request for comment.

If Petaluma Farms were willing to listen to stakeholders rather than blocking them out, perhaps they'd be able to develop a product that has real demand in the marketplace: high-end (yup, they're pricy) pasture raised eggs. Instead, they've got the walls up and are content to continue marketing a product that doesn't quite line up with reality.

[Image credit: michaelpickard, Flickr]

Jen Boynton headshotJen Boynton

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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