In the wake of this summer’s salmonella outbreak scandal, after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration uncovered dangerous, deplorable conditions at several large commercial factory egg farms, organic egg farmers reported a significant increase in sales. Natural food stores and farmer’s markets were inundated with concerned customers seeking safer egg options.
Because organic egg farmers have to follow stricter guidelines when it comes to caring for their flocks, many shoppers assume that organic eggs are less likely to be contaminated by dangerous pathogens like salmonella. A United Kingdom government study in 2008 did find that organic egg farms showed much lower levels of salmonella contamination.
But all “organic” eggs are not created equal. The egg farms in the U.K. study were operating under European organic standards, which are designed to promote small-scale organic farming, and are stricter in some ways than U.S. organic rules.
In the United States, many large-scale industrial egg farms have decided to cash in on the organic trend. And though these corporate-controlled egg farms may technically satisfy organic requirements under the law, according to an investigative report released this month by a non-profit farm policy research organization, the Cornucopia Institute, many so-called “organic” industrial farms raise chickens in crowded, unnatural factory farm environments that are only marginally healthier than the conditions found at conventional factory egg farms.
But the Cornucopia Institute report uncovered some good news, too. More than 25 of the organic egg brands Cornucopia investigated earned an exemplary rating from the institute, meaning that the farms’ hens are raised humanely in small-scale or medium-scale facilities with ample access to the outdoors.
For example, Vital Farms brand eggs, widely available at Whole Foods stores nationwide, scored an exemplary rating. The business is family owned, and independently organically certified. Each hen at Vital Farms has access to 25 square feet of outdoor space, and is fed a natural diet that includes fresh native grasses.
Contrast this with the conditions at Chino Valley Farms, a supposedly “organic” egg farming operation where the Cornucopia Institute discovered 36,000 hens packed into a single industrial henhouse.
Concerned egg eaters who want to make sure the organic label eggs they purchase were produced in a safe, humane facility should check out the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard, which ranks popular organic egg brands from around the country based on the ease of obtaining information about where and how the eggs were produced and the integrity of the producers’ organic farming practices.