The conventional egg production industry in the United States is a disgrace. Flat-out cruelty is sanctioned by both producers and the USDA; that’s been the case for decades now. But you are a conscientious consumer. Not for you the eggs produced by factory-farmed hens confined in battery cages; you choose eggs labeled “organic,” “cage-free” and/or “free range.” Problem solved, right? Think again. In many cases, gentle reader, you are, quite frankly, being had.
Spurred on partly by an outcry against factory farming of poultry, the demand for organic eggs, especially in the U.S., is increasing rapidly. Organic foods in general are a profitable business these days, with annual growth at around 20% since 1990. This is a statistic unmatched by any other sector of the food business. Big players in the food industry want a piece of this pie, as you might expect. And I wouldn’t object to that, if they were doing right by the animals that produce these millions upon millions of eggs for us every day. The problem is, that’s not happening.
There Are Some Standards, Some of The Time
Certainly, there are standards for organic eggs. They were set forth under the USDA’s National Organic Program in 2002, and, in theory, these regulations are a move in a positive direction. For instance, eggs certified “organic” must be produced by hens fed an antibiotic-free diet of feed that is 100% certified organic. Any claims you see about eggs laid by hormone-free chickens are bogus; hormones are not allowed to be given to any hens in commercial egg production. That’s great. But the other major stipulation, that the hens be allowed “access to the outdoors,” is ridiculous. Why? Because no clarification of the terminology is offered. So “access to the outdoors” doesn’t mean that hens won’t be raised in overcrowded conditions; it doesn’t ensure that chickens will live any part of their lives outdoors, free to peck and scratch or exhibit other natural behavior.
There are no requirements for how large the outdoor space needs to be. There are instances where all of the hens in a barn wouldn’t even fit in any available outdoor space. Producers are also permitted to confine hens “temporarily,” if they deem it necessary to protect soil or water quality, the health or safety of the animals, or “the animal’s stage of production.” Again, no clarification is provided for this terminology. The result? Hens can be “temporarily” confined indoors because of inclement weather. This doesn’t sound bad until you realize that some periods of inclement weather extend for an entire winter in the judgment of producers. These days, hens are also being “temporarily” confined indoors for fear of bio-security and avian flu, neither of which have any foreseeable ending date. Don’t mistake me; both of these are serious concerns, and I’m not making light of either. But I am saying that the USDA standards for organic eggs are weak and vague.
Well, what about the term “cage-free”? We can all agree that that’s a good idea for hens, right? Again, in theory, the answer is yes. Problem is, “cage-free” has absolutely no legal definition. Chickens can still live in huge flocks in barns; they merely live on the barn floors instead of in cages. Is this in the spirit of organic production, which is supposed to be better for our planet and its creatures? You must decide for yourself.
Equally ambiguous are the standards for “free range” or “free roaming” chickens; producers merely have to demonstrate that the animals are allowed access to the outdoors. Again, there are no regulations about the size of the outdoor space, its composition, or its cleanliness. Does that sound like “free roaming” to you? And just as battery cage hens are, “cage-free,” “free range,” or “free roaming” hens are usually debeaked when young. If you don’t know, debeaking involves removal of up to one-half of the upper beak and one-third of the lower beak with a hot blade. This is done to prevent hens from pecking aggressively at others in their barn, a behavior born of stress, part of which results from overcrowding; supposedly, it also prevents the spilling of chicken feed. Male chicks, who will never lay eggs, of course, are almost always killed, as they’re of no use to egg producers.
“Organic eggs” should come from hens allowed “access to the outdoors,” but the USDA does not define what “access” means. Photo by BillDavenport.
In short, much of the reassuring terminology so often seen on today’s egg cartons is fertilizer. If there is any defense for the mega-producers of eggs who treat chickens in the conventional fashion, I have read that there isn’t enough farmland in this country to enable all of the hens required to produce the vast quantity of eggs consumed by Americans to roam freely (in 2002, the most recent year for which statistics are available, Americans consumed an average of 253 eggs apiece!). That may very well be true. I don’t have a ready solution to overcrowded hen houses, debeaking practices, or the other various figurative and literal pains inflicted on too many chickens. But I believe there must be a better way.
Meantime, what do you do? Must you stop consuming eggs altogether?
Maybe not. There are a couple of smaller organizations, at least in the U.S., who recognized the cruelty of factory farming and have done something about it. Just as the USDA does, these organizations have criteria by which producers are judged, but these criteria are broader in scope and make a lot more sense to me. Producers who earn certifications from these groups have treated their animals humanely. Just as important, the standards were developed by animal scientists, veterinarians, and others similarly knowledgeable about animal welfare and behavior. In theory, the USDA should be knowledgeable in these areas, but they are beholden enough to large producers that their standards for animal welfare become diluted. These smaller groups are listed below as my Organic Finds of the Month. While the producers certified by these groups may not raise their animals entirely according to USDA organic standards, I believe the humane methods they employ are at least as important.
Organics are an increasingly large part of many peoples’ lives, and they should represent an improvement over conventional production methods. But they can’t do that if organic standards become diluted to meaninglessness. The current USDA standards present some options to consumers who want to tread more lightly on the Earth, as it were, but the loopholes for egg producers are too large. If people are going to pay more for eggs they believe were produced by humanely-treated birds, they should be able to get what they pay for.
Organic Finds of the Month: Certified Humane and American Humane Association
Both of these groups have programs that certify producers of meat, poultry, egg, and dairy products as humane producers. The policies of Certified Humane, as well as more information about the group, can be found at CertifiedHumane.com. I’m uncertain about the distribution of all products so labeled, but at least some of the eggs listed on this site are in good distribution in the Northeastern U.S. American Humane Association certifies products of humane producers with their “Free Farmed” designation. See their website at AmericanHumane.org.
Is either system perfect? Probably not, but either most likely represents an improvement over the USDA’s relatively toothless regulations.