Photo courtesy Stephen Ausmus/USDA
Life for a hen at Country Hen sounds like, well, good country living. The company says it’s “thrown the cages away, put in windows, and use natural lighting and natural ventilation to the maximum. Our friend the hen can take sun baths, dust herself, visit her neighbor, lay eggs in the nest, and carry on as a good hen should. In good weather she can exit to the outdoors on our porches.” And when it comes to chow, these birds eat only organic feed.
Yet a new report finds that the hens’ existence isn’t quite so idyllic. The Cornucopia Institute gave Country Hen only two eggs out of five on its Organic Egg Scorecard—a study based on the production practices of organic egg companies, from small-scale family farms to factory farms with hundreds of thousands of chickens. (Scroll down for the top 10 scoring brands, as well as a breakdown of egg carton labels.)
|None of the chickens that produce The Country Hen eggs currently have access to meaningful outdoor access. Their outdoor access consists of wooden porches that are covered on top and enclosed with chicken wire. The hens do not have access to living vegetation. The porches are not large enough for all the chickens to go outside at the same time, and are inaccessible to a large percentage of the birds. Only 10% of the birds could be outside at the same time. Instead of committing to working toward meeting requirements for outdoor access, The Country Hen has been lobbying the National Organic Standards Board not to require enough outdoor space for every hen to be outside at the same time.
The report comes on the heels of the recent massive egg recalls due to salmonella outbreaks that caused 1,813 illnesses. Two factory farms in Iowa, Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg, produced the eggs, and the incident drew renewed attention to the potential dangers of industrial operations.
Ninety-five percent of eggs come from operations that use cages, and salmonella is known to thrive in cage housing. While none of the brands rated on the Cornucopia's scorecard were involved in the outbreak, some of them are industrial-scale operations with tens to hundreds of thousands of hens.
The Cornucopia Institute will present its report to the USDA at the National Organic Standards Board meeting in Madison, Wisconsin, next week. The board is considering new proposed regulations for poultry, pigs, and other livestock that would establish housing-density standards and a clearer definition of “outdoor access.” Major industry players are, not surprisingly, opposed to requirements for outdoor space.
The group would like to see other changes, too. “After visiting over 15% of the certified egg farms in the United States, and surveying all name-brand and private-label industry marketers, it’s obvious that a high percentage of the eggs on the market should be labeled ‘produced with organic feed’ rather than bearing the USDA-certified organic logo,” said Mark Kastel, Cornucopia Institute’s codirector and senior farm policy analyst, in a release.
To find out how brands measured up, check out the scorecard (Note: None of the brands that received the lowest score—one egg—shared information about their production practices with the Cornucopia Institute.)
1. Coon Creek, Mondovi, WI
2. Kingbird Farm, Berkshire, NY
3. Krause Farm, Engandine, MI
4. Cleary Family Farm, Plainfield, VT
5. Common Good Farm, Raymond, NE
6. Highfields Farm, VT
7. Misty Meadows Farm, Everson, WA
8. Old Friends Farm, Amherst, MA
9. One Drop Farm, Cornville, ME
10. Trout Lake Abbey, Trout Lake, WA
All of this discussion about the realities of organic egg production got me wondering about the various labels on my egg carton. Here are definitions of some of the most common, courtesy of the Humane Society:
Certified Organic: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the USDA’s National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
Free-Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of "free-range" for some poultry products, there are no standards in "free-range" egg production. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Cage-Free: As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Free-Roaming: Also known as "free-range," the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in "free-roaming" egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage-free. There is no third-party auditing.
Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens that lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.