Thanks to industrial food producers who are "gaming the system," eggs labeled as "organic" may not be very different from the factory-farmed versions consumers are trying to avoid, warns a new report from the non-profit Cornucopia Institute.
Indeed, for some large-scale producers, the label "appears to be nothing more than a profitable marketing term to apply to the agro-industrial production model, simply substituting organic feed for conventional and eliminating prohibited synthetic inputs, such as pesticides and antibiotics," according to the report, entitled Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture (pdf).
Released Tuesday alongside an organic egg scorecard, Cornucopia's analysis reveals that some emerging brands advertise their eggs as "pastured" although their birds are housed in fixed buildings, while other factory farm operators "literally raise millions of birds (both conventional and organic) with as many as 150,000-200,000 'organic' hens in single buildings."
That's despite the fact that current federal regulations clearly state that organic egg producers must grant "year-round access for all animals to the outdoors" and that "total continuous confinement of any animal indoors is prohibited." Beyond that, the National Organic Standards Board in 2002 passed a recommendation for organic egg producers stating that "bare surfaces other than soil (e.g. metal, concrete, wood) do not meet the intent of the National Organic Standards."
But Cornucopia's research indicates that "most industrial-scale organic egg producers are currently housing tens of thousands of hens inside hen-houses, only offering small concrete or wooden porches as 'outdoor access'—and they are getting away with it."
"For this report, we have visited or surveilled, via aerial photography/satellite imagery, a large percentage of certified egg production in the United States, and surveyed all name-brand and private-label industry marketers," said Mark Kastel, co-director and senior farm policy analyst at the Cornucopia Institute, which works to advance sustainable, organic agriculture and family farms.
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"It's obvious that a high percentage of the organic eggs on the market are illegal and should, at best, be labeled 'produced with organic feed,' rather than bearing the [U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA]-certified organic logo," Kastel stated.
To that end, Cornucopia is calling not only for consumers to "vote in the marketplace" by purchasing ethically produced brands, but also for federal regulators to take a stronger stance when it comes to animal welfare and provision of legitimate outdoor access.
Furthermore, citing the USDA's failure to properly investigate transgressions within the organic poultry industry, Cornucopia has filed formal ethics charges against the National Organic Program's staff director, Miles McEvoy, and has asked USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack to remove him from that post.
Noting that industrial-scale producers have publicly opposed proposals to strengthen regulations requiring outdoor access, Kastel said: "Circumstantial evidence indicates Mr. McEvoy, and his colleagues at the USDA, are paying more attention to the voices of agribusiness lobbyists, rather than the preponderance of consumers and ethical farmers in the organic industry."
Still, those ethical farmers provide the bright side to Scrambled Eggs. Take Alexandre EcoDairy Farms in Northern California, for example. With 25,000 birds in 16 movable hen-houses, they are proving they can scale-up the egg model without diminishing the organic-label integrity, Cornucopia said.
As the farm's Stephanie Alexandre puts it: "When consumers buy organic eggs, I think they expect that the hens were out on pasture, enjoying fresh air, running around, foraging in the pasture."