A Southwest Wisconsin hen-house raising young birds for Organic Valley. The house confines the animals, granting no outdoor access whatsoever, and provides virtually no natural light in the building. Image credit: The Cornucopia Institute
Like many TreeHugging foodie types, I have been shocked by stories of unborn chickens injected with antibiotics, and the horrific footage of conditions in a commercial chicken hatchery. And while I am fully aware that organic standards are by no means perfect, I do like to buy organic eggs when my own hens aren't laying enough—secure in the knowledge that they will come from happier, healthier hens. Or so I thought.
The photo above is just one shocking example of conditions that many "organic" hens must endure, details of which are laid out in a damning new report. Luckily, consumers are in the perfect position to demand change. The Cornucopia Institute, a farming campaign group, has put together a comprehensive report called Scrambled Eggs, detailing the conditions in industrial-scale organic egg production. The report is the culmination of two years of research which saw the group visit over 15% of the certified egg farms in the United States, and survey all name-brand and private-label industry marketers. Its findings demonstrate a huge dichotomy between best-practice husbandry exhibited by many small and medium-sized organic egg producers, and the bare-minimum standards followed by many industrial-scale operations:
"Many of these operators are gaming the system by providing minute enclosed porches, with roofs and concrete or wood flooring, and calling these structures 'the outdoors,'" stated Charlotte Vallaeys, a farm policy analyst with Cornucopia and lead author of the report. "Many of the porches represent just 3 to 5 percent of the square footage of the main building housing the birds. That means 95 percent or more of the birds have absolutely no access whatsoever."
36,000 birds in an aviary system in Wisconsin, supplying Chino Valley Ranchers. These hens do have access to an outdoor run. Image credit: The Cornucopia Institute
The campaign is now hotting up to demand genuine, accessible and adequate access to all birds on a farm, and a group of producers plans to take its grievances to a meeting of the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) on October 25th. Other larger-scale producers, however, are getting ready to fight back. In a mark of how different attitudes to 'natural' farming can be, one farmer seemed shocked at the idea that chickens should have access to soil:
"We are strongly opposed to any requirement for hens to have access to the soil," said Kurt Kreher of Kreher's Sunrise Farms in Clarence, N.Y. And Bart Slaugh, director of quality assurance at Eggland's Best, a marketer of both conventional and organic eggs based in Jeffersonville, Pa., noted that, "The push for continually expanding outdoor access ... needs to stop."
Sadly, some consumers will see reports like these as a reason not to buy organic. But the real story here is the vast difference between best-practice, and those who are merely doing the bare minimum to achieve organic certification. Luckily the Cornucopia Institute has put together an Organic Egg Brand Scorecard to help consumers differentiate.
The Organic Egg Brand Scorecard rates producers from "exemplary" to "ethically deficient"
The report found that the vast majority of farms that practiced the very highest standards—such as grazing hens on open pasture, rotating grazing areas, and even using mobile chicken houses to ensure fresh land—were small to medium sized enterprises. These farms typically market their eggs locally or regionally under their farm's brand name, mostly through farmer's markets, food cooperatives and/or independently owned natural and grocery stores. Some brands were also available regionally through larger chains like Whole Foods.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, at the other end of the spectrum stores' own brand organic egg lines were the worst offenders when it came to conditions. The reports' authors point out that while organic consumers tend to expect transparency and information about where their eggs come from, by definition, own brand products tend to be anonymous—they also tend to be priced lower than premium organic brands.
These laying hens on Schultz Organic Farm in Minnesota have ample opportunity to go outside and plenty of space to roam. Image credit: The Cornucopia Institute
In the end, this report is just one more reminder that while certifications may be a useful tool, they are by no means the be-all and end-all of sustainable farming. There is no substitute for having a real relationship with your farmer(s) and knowing where your food comes from. Except maybe raising your own hens...
More on Eggs, Chickens and Factory Farming
Tyson Injects Unborn Chickens with Antibiotics
Hatchery Horrors: Footage of Commercial Chicken Hatchery
Facebook Game Rescues Virtual Chickens, and Real Ones Too
More on Backyard Chicken Keeping
Eating Locally: Backyard Chickens
How to Get Chicks
The Downside of Freerange Chickens