When you see the “organic” label on a carton of eggs, what do you visualize? If you’re like many consumers, you probably think of a flock of healthy, friendly chickens feeding on an open pasture, with their diets perhaps supplemented by some locally sourced food in poor weather or conditions when the pasture is low. You might be under the impression that those eggs are higher in nutrients as a result of the healthier and more diverse diet the hens eat, and you might feel good about pulling that carton off the shelf, even if you do wince at the price. Even though they’re more expensive than conventional eggs, you might tell yourself, they’re worth it.
However, the reality of the organic certification is not so rosy. When farmers began pushing for the certification in the 1970s, the USDA responded, albeit slowly, working on a set of guidelines that culminated in the Organic Foods Production Act of 1990. (For reference, organic certifier Oregon Tilth dates to 1982.) The intention of these certifications was to ensure that consumers knew what they were buying, and had a clear choice between agricultural production methods. To obtain certification, farmers have to endure three to five hour inspections every year that minutely evaluate every aspect of their facilities and procedures.
Yet, some aspects of the certification process allow for loopholes, and some of those loopholes are astonishingly idiosyncratic, a reflection of how difficult it can be to create a coherent regulation process for something so complicated. For example, consumers who think they’re getting locally sourced produce and animal products should think again: nothing in the standards requires farmers to use local organic fodder for their animals, which explains the shocking price of some organic eggs, milk, and meats. Why so spendy?
That diverse, healthy diet organic hens eat? It’s largely corn and soybeans, and though the United States is a huge producer of these crops, it doesn’t produce enough organic corn and soybeans to satisfy the growing organic farming industry, so farmers are forced to import from overseas, which drives up the cost of their products. If this sounds like a bizarre contradiction to you, you’re not alone: some farmers are choosing to produce “beyond organic” products which focus not just on the spirit of organic certification, but also considerations like ethical and local sourcing for their feed and other supplies, as well as labor.
A similar conflict can be seen with claims of “free range” and “cage free” eggs, which are not subjected to regulation. This allows farmers to slap any label they please on their egg cartons and treat their hens however they want, because they’re not actually subject to inspection or any government standards. This is grim news for the chickens in their care, who can endure the same cramped, crowded, miserable conditions as those in cartons not labeled “free range.” Organic chickens are theoretically supposed to be allowed access to pasture, which is actually a step up from “free range” labels, but the problem is that they’re often provided with a single open door in the henhouse, and fear keeps them from venturing outside. So much for pasture-raised hens.
What you’re really getting with a food label is sometimes hard to ascertain, and the industry works to keep it that way, which makes it even more challenging to do the right thing with your wallet and your fridge. How can you know where your food is coming from? Consider buying directly from local farmers — and if you buy at farmers’ markets, ask for farm tours and other proofs of local operations, as fake farmers’ markets have become a growing problem in the United States.
Photo credit: Bretta Gottsabend.