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Big-O Organic Eggs

free-range egg chicken run organic

Industrialized agriculture is no stranger to organic food. Sadly, organic standards in egg production do little to produce a nutrient-dense egg from an authentically happy hen. Industrial organic egg producers take advantage of the letter of the law to violate its spirit and cheat consumers out of hard-earned dollars by asking them to pay premium prices for eggs that are essentially the same as any other.

This month, the Cornocopia Institute released their definitive report on the subject. They call it: Scrambled Eggs.

One of my favorite zingers from the report:

Industrial-scale producers sometimes buy old conventional henhouses and convert them by taking out the cages. In order to meet the organic requirement for “outdoor access,” they commonly build a small, insignificant concrete porch that is accessible through one or two small “popholes.”

When they build new henhouses specifically for organic production, they do not move away from this model, but rather build very large barns housing many tens of thousands of chickens, with nothing more than a small concrete covered porch as token outdoor access. In some cases, they “bring the outdoors indoors” by building “winter gardens,” which are enclosed indoor spaces that simulate an outdoor environment by providing deep litter and allowing access to fresh air and sunlight.

Check out this concrete porch, devoid of grass, bugs, or anything else that would entice a hen into it through one of the two popholes:

free-range egg chicken run organic

And they call this “free range”! Seriously, folks, you can’t trust those supermarket labels. Here’s another example of how Big-O Organic industrialized egg production violates the spirit of the “cage-free” label:

Aviary systems, allowing many more birds in individual buildings as compared to free-floor systems, are also popular with industrial-scale producers. Using this approach, houses can hold 85,000 birds or more—examples are Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch’s Green Meadows Farm in Michigan and Cal-Maine’s new organic buildings in Kansas. According to one organic producer who specializes in pastured production, some types of aviary systems are, essentially, “glorified cages.” Because cages are opened during the day, allowing the hens to roam freely on the floor, industrial-scale producers consider this a “cage-free” operation, and eligible for organic
certification.

In these aviaries, when the hens first move into the house, they are confined in multi-tiered cages. After some time, the doors to the cages are opened to allow the hens to access scratching areas on the floor of the house. Because the cages open during the day, producers consider this system to be “cage-free.” Those in cages on top levels have stairways to access the floor. Partitions divide the hens into flock sizes of 130 to 150 birds.

Well, you say, perhaps that’s some organic egg producers. But surely not the majority? Surely most farmers going for the organic label have a conscience?

Nope.

According to the United Egg Producers, a trade group for industrial-scale egg producers, and estimates by some producers, 80% of eggs come from the largest producers in the industry, with layer houses that mirror the conventional/industrial model of production and do not provide enough outdoor space for every hen to be outside at the same time.

The Organic Egg Scorecard

Last year, in my series on Healthy Foods: What to Buy, I did a feature on healthy egg choices. In it, I pretty much dismissed all supermarket eggs — organic or not — in favor of know-your-farmer eggs from pastured hens.

joel salatin free range organic pastured hens eggs

But, I did say that if you had to buy supermarket eggs, you should focus on getting eggs with a nutrient profile as similar to pastured eggs as possible.

Well, the Cornucopia Institute took it one step further. When they released their Scrambled Eggs report, they also provided an egg scorecard for the major organic brands available in your supermarket. It’s well-researched and thorough and may also help you in making your egg-buying decisions.

Check out the scorecard here.

(photos by cornucopia.org)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.

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15 Responses to Big-O Organic Eggs
  1. Alea
    October 21, 2010 | 10:37 pm

    I live in a rural area, so I know the term “free range” is abused all the time! I used to tutor a child and was paid in pastured eggs. Very good deal!

  2. Crystal - Prenatal Coach
    October 22, 2010 | 10:48 am

    I have to admit. I just recently switched to pastured eggs this year. We now get them directly from the farmer and it feels good! :)

  3. a. borealis
    October 22, 2010 | 4:46 pm

    We recently bought 20 “spent hens” from one of my husband’s co-workers. They had been cooped up in a much smaller scale operation than the pictures you have here, but not all that much different. Their “run” was entirely enclosed with a dirt bottom, but I can’t imagine many bugs were available with how scalded it must have been from all the poop.

    Anyway, their eggs where EXACTLY like supermarket eggs. Light yellow yolks, very runny whites, and extremely fragile yolks and shells. It was very interesting to observe their eggs compared to our hens’, who are allowed to run as they please. There was no comparison. That really showed me, in a tangible way, the difference in living conditions. Not to mention the fact that most of them looked mangey and picked at, another real effect of over-crowding.

    We’re letting them run free, and while it took them a good week to feel brave enough to do that, their eggs are slowly changing – darker, more orange-colored yolks being the most striking effect. Very intersting.

    Thanks for the info!

    • KristenM
      October 25, 2010 | 1:25 pm

      What a good, first-hand account of the difference that living conditions can make. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Laura
    October 23, 2010 | 11:10 pm

    I originally found this scorecard linked with another website and was shocked to find the eggs I buy, which say all the right things including “Humane certified” to be considered just one step above industrial factory eggs! How in the world are we supposed to buy anything when we are constantly lied to? It’s very demoralizing. Particularly when some of these eggs cost as much as 8 dollars a dozen! Thanks goodness there are more and more meat egg and dairy CSA’s starting here. Looks like “organic” is quickly becoming as meaningless as the word “green” Sad.

    • KristenM
      October 25, 2010 | 1:24 pm

      Laura — I share your pain. I’ve sometimes bought The Country Hen eggs and the Eggland’s Best Organic in a pinch, and was disappointed to see that they scored so low.

  5. Natalie
    October 24, 2010 | 6:27 am

    I find this a problem even here in Germany. I went to the farm the other day to get raw milk. I saw that they had organic eggs. I asked if they were free-range and I should have been tipped off when he said, “they can go outside if they want to.” Got home and when I cracked them open, they were pale yellow. I’ll just stick to getting them at the weekly markets in town or at the grocery stores who sell pasture eggs – many families around here raise hens in their backyards and sell them to local grocery stores. In fact, we walk by the hens all the time and throw them worms and bugs. They love it! Anyway, the yolks of the eggs sold in the grocery stores are nice and orange and taste great!

  6. Cathy sugden
    October 27, 2010 | 2:37 pm

    And this is precisely why I raise my own hens, on our own little 9 acres of Kent countryside. The hens are completly free to do as they choose, which sometimes means they wander off too far and close to the local fox, which is always sad. But the eggs are like nothing I can buy anywhere else and the more people realize they could raise a few hens in their own gardens, the more happy hens we would have:-)

  7. Ronald Pottol
    October 28, 2010 | 1:34 pm

    Some of us were quite skeptical of the push for a government organic label, history has show that the skeptics were right, it is be something ADM and the other big factory farming companies would be fine with.

    Organic is very nearly useless, we need a new word. And farmers ought to be able to use anti biotics where appropriate, rather than just hoping the cow gets better, or giving up certification for that animal.

    • Jan
      July 1, 2013 | 1:52 pm

      Instead of “organic”, know your farmer. I’m lucky I live in a rural area, grow some of my own veggies, buy at the farmers market and from local pastured beef, pork and honey producers and have my own egg and meat hens (happy, outdoors, eating grass and bugs.) If I still lived in the city (God forbid!) I would take a weekend drive to the country to scout out local farmers. Some towns and cities are now allowing people to keep chickens in their backyards. Gather up some people and fight city hall. Every family should have a few hens. The are quieter than dogs and their poop is good for the garden.

  8. Jeffrey
    August 17, 2011 | 8:47 am

    I like how a new word Brings a new level of hope for the underground food market. Reminds me of being a kid hiding things from my parents. :)

  9. Erin O'Dowd
    November 27, 2012 | 10:32 am

    I have often bought the whole foods 365 brand “organic” eggs. The quality actually had been really good lately. I am curious if there is some variance for the private label? From this article our seems these henhouses weren’t actually reviewed, because obviously they’re private. In any case, the best eggs I’ve ever hsd came from Vital Farms, with World’s Best Eggs coming at a close second. These were both five eggs rating! Thanks for the awesome list.

  10. Crystal Pettit
    May 13, 2013 | 10:18 am

    I have a question and need some advice. I have recently ceased purchasing organic eggs and found some local eggs from farms in our area. One source I found and have purchased are from a friend’s “farm”. They are delicious and beautiful (dark orange yolks). However, here’s where my question is…the chickens feed on her pasture, but is supplemented with basic chicken feed, which I can guarantee includes non-organic corn and soy, thus most likely containing gmo’s. Should I continue buying these eggs or only ones that supplement with organic feed?

    • Jan
      July 1, 2013 | 2:00 pm

      Crystal – As far as eggs go, organic means diddly squat. You want free-range “pastured” eggs. Do you know for sure there are corn and soy in her feed, in which case, you’re probably right. Hen-scratch can be up to 100% wheat, which for the most part (except the stuff that got away in Colorado) is non-GMO. My advice, get your own hens. Baring that, I always go with the smallest producer where there are no middle-men or multi-nationals involved.

  11. Jan
    July 1, 2013 | 2:07 pm

    Joel Saladin (pictured with the cowboy hat and hens in the background) is one of my heros. Read anything written by him for and eye-opening account especially “Everything I Want to Do is Illegal.” Also, I trust my own eggs so much I regularly make real tiramisu – the Italian dessert with raw eggs in it.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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