I try to buy my eggs from the farmers market. They aren’t certified organic, but I know the farm and its practices. I’m satisfied that my eggs are coming from chickens that have been raised humanely.
Once in a while I run out of eggs between market trips, and I end up buying organic eggs from the grocery store when that happens. I know that just because eggs are organic, it doesn’t mean that the chickens that laid those eggs had lives where they roamed free on a farm on sunny days. There are organic egg factory farms, and the lives of the chickens on those farms aren’t what most people would picture when they think of organically raised chickens.
The Cornucopia Institute just released an in-depth study on organic egg producers titled Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture. That link will take you to the full 72-page report in PDF format that discusses the difference between what the United States Department of Agriculture defines as organic and what many small farmers and consumers expect organics to really be.
Large-scale producers insist that their industrial model of food production — regardless of its inherent monoculture (lack of biodiversity), dependence on inputs imported from off the farm, and dependence on confinement systems for livestock, etc. — can be applied to organics. For them, organic is nothing more than a set of standards developed in 2002 by the United States Department of Agriculture, which opens the door to higher profits from consumers who are willing to pay more. Some industry lobbyists play the same games trying to develop or exploit loopholes in the organic standards in the same way that their fellow tax attorneys attempt to manipulate and exploit the tax code for corporate benefit.
For most organic farmers and consumers, organic is much more than a set of federal regulations — it is a farm management system, an agricultural philosophy, and a way of life. Unfortunately, family farmers who believe in the ecological principles of organic agriculture, such as diversity and the interdependence of soil, crops, animals and people, cannot compete with the prices offered by industrial organics and are being placed at a distinct competitive disadvantage.
The ratings system, not surprisingly, is done by number of eggs. A “5-egg” rating is “exemplary — beyond organic.” A “1-egg” rating is “ethically deficient — industrial organics/no meaningful outdoor access and/or none were open enough to participate.” Many organic egg producers fall somewhere in between.
You can use the Egg Scorecard to find out where the brand of organic eggs that you purchase at the market falls in the egg rating system. Not surprisingly, private label organic eggs from large chain stores like Whole Foods (365 Organic), Walmart (Great Value) or Trader Joe’s didn’t impress the Cornucopia Institute very much.
I was disappointed to see that my market of choice, Wegman’s, was not included in the study.