Unscrambling Organic Eggs: The Standards Behind The Label

by Nicola Temple on May 14, 2012

I am a confirmed egg lover. I think I’ve mentioned in previous posts here on EVG that our family eats a mainly vegetarian diet and the only reason it’s not vegan is because I can’t give up eggs…and at our house, it’s ALWAYS organic eggs!

There’s no denying, however, that my desire to have organic eggs is a costly endeavour. Sometimes my resolve falters as I compare the price of the organic brands with that of cage-raised commercial brands. However, just one thought about the quality of life for caged hens and my resolve returns in full force.

Much like organic meat, organic milk and other organic products, it is difficult to find conclusive research showing the health benefits of selecting organic. However, it’s not always about us.

Organic agricultural practices are based on sound ecological principles and are a more environmentally friendly way of producing food. Organic agriculture is easier on the soil and doesn’t use harmful pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

The regulations behind organic farming also address animal welfare standards, which means your eggs are eco friendly and hen friendly at the same time.

What are the standards behind organic eggs?

Certified organic eggs must be produced by chickens that have been raised organically since their second day of life.

Organic laying hens fall under livestock regulations within the National Organic Program. These regulations deal mostly with the food, health care and living conditions of the hens and can be summarized as follows:

  • The hens must be fed 100% organic food, and this would include organic grazing pasture.
  • The food must not include any animal byproducts or genetically modified crops (GMO crops).
  • The hens can’t be given any hormones.
  • No antibiotics are to be given unless there is an infection (in which case the eggs can’t be sold as organic from those hens infected and treated). Non-organic egg producers often give low doses of antibiotics on a regular basis as a precautionary measure.
  • Hens must be stocked in densities that reduce stress as well as risk of infection and allow for exercise and freedom of movement.
  • Organic laying hens must have year-round access to the outdoors and their facilities must allow them to carry out their natural behaviors. For chickens this would include dust baths, scratching, grazing, roosting and all other things hen-like.
  • Organic egg producers also can’t induce molting. Molting is a natural process most birds go through where they lose feathers to allow the growth of new feathers. Commercial egg farms will sometimes induce molting by withholding food or water as molting extends the productive life of the hens. However, organic egg producers allow natural molting to occur but don’t induce it in any way.

So, in summary, your organic label certifies that the eggs have come from chickens raised on 100% organic food, with a higher quality of life than non-organically raised hens, free from antibiotics and hormones.

organic eggs

Organic eggs may have superior nutritional value if the hens have been pasture fed. CC image courtesy of Little Blue Hen on Flickr.

How does free range compare with organic?

Free range eggs differ from organic eggs in that there are not regulations governing what the chickens are fed, whether they are given antibiotics or hormones, or how they are raised.

The label free range simply means that the hens are not raised in cages. This can still mean that they are raised in a barn at very high densities and it doesn’t mean they ever see the outdoors.

There are some health benefits after all!

Though I couldn’t find any conclusive reputable studies comparing the health benefits of organic versus non-organic eggs, I did come across a study that showed some distinct nutritional benefits of pasture-fed laying hens. The study showed that pasture fed chickens laid eggs that had 34% less cholesterol, 10% less fat, 40% more vitamin A, twice as much omega-6 fatty acid, and four times as much omega-3 fatty acid as the USDA standard. Now that’s something to cluck about!

Knowing this, it’s a good idea to check whether your favorite organic eggs come from pasture fed chickens! Start by looking at the producer’s web site, and then give them a phone call if the information isn’t there. The following video clip gives a tour of an organic egg producer in western Canada that provides his hens with pasture for at least part of the day.

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