Natural Foods Merchandiser

Cracking the Organic Egg Market

From "Behind The Label: A Guide For Retailers," A Supplement to Natural Foods Merchandiser


Until recent studies changed perceptions about the role of eggs in the development of heart disease and strokes, doctors warned patients to scramble for something healthier in their diet. But now an egg a day may help keep the doctor at bay—and that has changed marketing strategy within the multibillion-dollar egg industry.

Still, that doesn't mean all eggs are created equal, and certainly all are not organic.

The same U.S. Department of Agriculture rules that regulate the organic label on other livestock products, including beef, poultry and pork, also apply to eggs. No antibiotics or hormones can be administered to laying hens, and they must be given organic feed. Producers, unless their operations are very small, must be certified by a USDA-accredited certifying agent.

The American Egg Board, a Park Ridge, Ill.-based industry association, says no hormones are used in the United States to stimulate egg production, but antibiotics are given to laying hens when needed to "promote good health in the henhouse." Consumer groups, including the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., have voiced concern about antibiotic resistance in humans as a result of agricultural use of these drugs. Both hormones and antibiotics are prohibited in organic production; sick animals are treated but removed from the flock, and cannot be sold as organic.

Feed is another significant point of distinction between organic and conventional eggs. While the conventional egg industry says it avoids additives to the mash fed to chickens—mash is primarily made of sorghum, corn and other grains—it may well contain pesticides, herbicides and chemical farm fertilizers. USDA National Organic Program regulations, on the other hand, require organic feed for organic livestock operations (despite a widely publicized attempt to undermine this requirement in early 2003). The feed must meet all conditions of organic certification, including the prohibition against genetically modified crops.

Organic laying hens must be given access to pasture. Many conventional egg producers keep their hens caged throughout their laying lifecycle, with automated conveyor belts providing feed and catching freshly laid eggs. In some major production facilities, hens are allowed to roam freely within a building, but no windows are built into those facilities to allow natural light. Artificial light is used to stimulate production. While conventional producers argue that confinement helps prevent exposure to disease, animal rights groups contend the treatment is cruel and counterproductive to supporting healthy immune systems in chickens.

For all organic livestock, NOP regulations specifically call for "access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate and the environment" as a condition of certification. Though enforcement of the access provision has been inconsistent, those lobbying for a "lowest common denominator" interpretation of the standards appear to be in the minority.

In the egg world, remember that "natural" is not the same as organic. Eggs that are labeled natural are produced without artificial ingredients and with only minimal processing, according to the USDA. Similarly, "free-range" has little regulatory weight, and means different things to different producers; it isn't synonymous with organic. Retailers should seek out producers with clear, well-articulated standards when evaluating these options.

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