Organic, Free-Range & Conventional: The Truth About Eggs

Organic, Free-Range & Conventional: The Truth About Eggs

Michelle Chin
May 4, 2011

In last week's post about Deciphering Organic Labeling some great comments came up specifically about eggs. When I first learned that the the terms "organic" and "free range" didn't actually align with my happy mental image of chickens roaming around in the sunshine, freely pecking at the ground and able to spread their wings, I felt very misled.

Most of us know the horrors of conventional egg production. To show photographic proof of the difference between conventional and farm-raised eggs, The Tasting Buds food blog did a side-by-side comparison. If you don't know about battery cages, it's how conventionally-raised hens are housed inside of huge sheds. As of 1990, 95% of US laying hens were housed in these cages that are approximately the size of a filing cabinet drawer and can hold 8-10 hens, giving each hen less than one square foot to herself.

One would think that the terms "organic" and "free range" means that you are getting healthier eggs and that the birds have been treated with more humane care. Sure, organic chickens aren't pumped full of antibiotics (in fact, antibiotics are only allowed if there is an outbreak of illness), but the fact is that they are often raised in huge windowless sheds, without true access to sunlight and fresh air. In big factory farms, "access to fresh air" can be a small concrete or wooden porch attached to the shed that laying hens live in.

Free-range can have different meanings, depending on the country. Here in the U.S. the Department of Agriculture has no standards and allows any egg to be labeled as "free-range." They also don't have to be fed any better food, including genetically modified or animal byproduct feed. Though in the UK, free-range chickens are given true access to fresh air and vegetation during daylight hours and in the EU each hen is given a minimum of 4 square meters of space.

Hormone-free chicken is an oxymoron because the FDA doesn't allow the use of hormones in chicken or egg production. So, chicken or eggs labeled as "hormone-free" are labeled such either out of ignorance or marketing to entice you to buy their "healthier" product.

The Cornucopia Institute produced a report and scorecard so consumers can get the truth behind the eggs they're purchasing. One of their eye-opening insights is "factory farm operators can have as many as 85,000 organic hens in a single building." But it's not all bad news. This report also highlights the farmers who are doing a great job, raising healthy hens and who most deserve your business.

(Image: Oregon Live)

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