The USDA organic label on eggs ensures that they have met the minimum national standards for organic production. Among the criteria, the hens must be fed a 100-percent organic diet, cannot be given antibiotics, and must have living conditions that allow them to engage in natural behaviors (that is, they can’t be caged and must have outdoor access).
But that doesn’t mean hens that lay organic eggs are necessarily treated as humanely as possible. The eggs may come from small-scale family farms where the birds actually get to scratch around and peck in the dirt outdoors—as you may envision when you pick up that carton. But more often, the hens are raised in factory-size buildings where huge flocks are largely confined indoors in crowded spaces, similar to conventional egg farms.
That’s because the National Organic Program requires only that the hens be given access to the outdoors, without stipulating what that outdoors is (it could be a tiny screened-in concrete area) or requiring that the hens actually go outside (there may be a limited number of small doors that most of the chickens can’t even get to). And a proposal under the Obama admistration to mandate specific space requirements and define what outdoor space really means was scrapped earlier this year by the USDA.
To give consumers a peek into the story behind organic eggs, the nonprofit food and farm policy watchdog group, Cornucopia Institute, offers a “scorecard” that rates some 150 egg producers, both local and national, on a scale of 1 to 5. The ratings take into consideration how the eggs are produced and how the hens are cared for, including the size of the flocks, how much indoor and outdoor space each hen has, the types of indoor enrichment provided (such as perches and scratching areas), whether beak trimming and forced molting are practiced, and death rates.
The top rankers (5-egg rating), which sell eggs under their farm’s brand name, “go beyond organic,” raising their hens in facilities that provide ample and well-managed rotating pasture. The hens are all “truly pastured” or have “enhanced outdoor access.” In contrast, producers with low ratings come from industrial-scale facilities that at best just meet minimum USDA organic standards, or they come from farms where Cornucopia found grounds for concern about compliance with the regulations.
By far, most producers have a 1-egg rating (poor), generally failing to provide meaningful outdoor access and having a lack of transparency (all declined to give information to Cornucopia). This category includes private-label or store-brand eggs, and according to Cornucopia’s research, “the vast majority of organic eggs for private label brands are produced on industrial farms that house hundreds of thousands of birds and do not grant the birds meaningful outdoor access.” Some of the largest nationwide organic egg providers—including Kirkland Signature, 365 Organic, Horizon Organic, and Eggland’s Best—fall in this category.
The egg scorecard also provides specific information for each egg producer and how they received their points—just click on the names in the list. And if you’re interested in seeing how your organic dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream, butter) rate in terms of treatment of cows and other criteria, Cornucopia provides scorecards for these foods as well.
Note: The term “organic” on an egg carton does not mean the eggs are necessarily more nutritious or safer than conventional eggs. Follow food-safety precautions when handling all eggs—that means keeping them refrigerated, cooking them until they are not runny, refrigerating leftovers promptly, and avoiding cross-contamination of other foods with raw eggs.