If the news shocks you that the dozen organic eggs you just bought came from hens living in factory-like conditions, you are not alone.
Nationwide, most consumers of organic eggs, dairy, and meat believe they are paying for more humanely raised products. In one survey conducted by the Association for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 2014, 68 percent of consumers believed that animals raised on organic farms have “access to outdoor pasture and fresh air,” and 67 percent believed that they have “significantly more space to move than on non-organic farms.”
The truth of animal welfare in organic agriculture is not so clear-cut. And no food highlights the problem more than eggs.
Pete & Gerry’s is a large-scale organic egg retailer in Monroe, N.H., where the hens are free-range. Most days—when temperatures are not extreme and there are no predators or disease-carrying migratory birds about—the flock moves at will in and out of the barns, dust-bathing and foraging in organic pasture.
Due south in Hubbardston, Mass., the “girls” at organically certified Country Hen spend their lives inside artificially lit, ventilated two-story henhouses with covered porches. They perch and feed on organic grain indoors; because of concerns about avian bird flu and other risks, they never step outside.
Both brands, bearing the USDA organic seal, are sold at a premium. But their eggs—and the living conditions for the hens who lay them—are not at all the same.
The 2001 national organic law requires that all certified organic producers provide “year-round access” to the outdoors. However, Country Hen appealed to the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service to allow its porches to qualify as “outdoors” and won its case in 2002.
Ever since, the nation’s largest egg producers have entered the lucrative organic food market, which surged 11 percent in 2015 to $39.7 billion, the largest single-year gain. According to the USDA, at least 50 percent of the eggs currently sold as organic come from industrial-scale producers like Mississippi-based Cal-Maine, which houses up to 200,000 hens in a single, multistory aviary with porches.
A coalition of animal-welfare advocacy groups, including the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), the ASPCA and Compassion in World Farming, have decried such companies, saying they flout the spirit of the National Organic Program. They argue that a product consumers widely believe to be free-range is rather merely cage-free.
“It’s not uniform,” said Dena Jones, director of AWI’s farm-animal program. “We have a huge range: birds that don’t go outside and high-stocking density inside, and then you have pasture-raised. Two extremes and everything in between.”
The majority of organic egg producers, including Pete & Gerry’s, Vital Farms and Egg Innovations, meet or even exceed the federal standards. The disparity puts these producers — some of which raise birds in ideal conditions, namely mobile chicken coops on pasture — at an economic disadvantage.
“I think most organic customers would be surprised to know how some of the large-scale organic is being produced right now,” said Pete & Gerry’s owner, Jesse Laflamme.
LaFlamme’s parents nearly lost the family farm founded by his grandfather during the late-20th-century surge in shell-egg consolidation and automation. They converted it to certified organic in 1998, and LaFlamme returned to the farm in 2000 just when organics started taking off.
In order to scale up Pete & Gerry’s production to meet demand, LaFlamme partnered with other family farms to raise eggs sold under Pete & Gerry’s label. The company now contracts with over 120 farms.
Stretching across New England, New York and Pennsylvania, this model of production involves entire families working to raise up to 20,000 free-range hens. But LaFlamme worries that they will be pushed out of production just as his parents nearly were. “There are efficiencies in a factory, efficiencies in large scale. We are paying a family farm a living.”
The USDA is in the process of finalizing a new rule to clarify outdoor access for poultry. The proposed Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices requires organic producers to provide genuine outdoor access with space minimums and soil-type specifications, among many other animal-welfare provisions. It would also disqualify porches once and for all.
Meanwhile, the need to increase transparency and consumer trust in food labeling only grows more urgent. In August, the Animal Legal Defense Fund and the Organic Consumers Association filed a lawsuit against New York-based Handsome Brook Farm for “false, deceptive and misleading practices.” While claiming on its labels and in marketing materials that its eggs were “pasture raised,” the company routinely sourced from conventional farms, the lawsuit alleges.
There’s good reason for egg producers to capitalize on consumer preferences for products that meet higher animal-welfare standards. In the most recent ASPCA survey, 67 percent of consumers said they would likely buy “eggs, dairy and meat products bearing a welfare-certification label with meaningful standards, even if it meant paying a higher price.”
The question remains as to whether consumers will ever get what they believe they’re paying for.