Which Eggs Are Best? Organic, Free Range, Or Conventional?
Just down the road from Elmer Martin is Robert Keller's farm. It has all the advantages of a PEQAP farm but, in addition, it's organic. Organic operations have a much higher level of oversight than conventional farms do. To maintain their certification and use the organic seal on their product, farms have to be inspected annually, at a minimum, by a third-party certifier with USDA accreditation. Compare that with the sporadic oversight of conventional facilities by the FDA, which has been chronically strapped for resources. "The FDA had never conducted a routine inspection of one of the farms involved in last year's big recall," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit in Washington, DC, dedicated to safe and sustainable food practices.
That doesn't mean that organic operations necessarily conform to the bucolic images that most people have in mind. In fact, most supermarket "organic" eggs are produced in factory-size facilities. The producers follow the letter of the National Organic Program, which requires that the poultry receive organic feed, are cage-free, and have "outdoor access." There isn't, however, any mandate about how much time the chickens need to spend in the great outdoors.
Keller's 23,800 birds live in a 450-foot-long henhouse with three tiers of perches; they're indoors in inclement weather but otherwise often outdoors by day, exiting by portals. They have more than 3 times more space per bird than Martin's hens, but the barn is still crowded. Most of the birds mill about on the floor, with some of them—those higher up in the pecking order—perching on the less-crowded upper levels. Most of the hens lay their eggs in the darkened nesting boxes.
Over the past 5 years, multiple studies, including one massive survey of 23 European countries, have shown lower rates of Salmonella in cage-free hens (both organic and conventional). Experts believe that's largely a function of smaller flocks, making sanitary conditions easier to maintain. "Organic farmers aren't allowed to use antibiotics or most other drugs to treat their flocks," says Mark Kastel, cofounder of the Cornucopia Institute, a pro-organic group. "It's incumbent on them to create a healthier environment."
Organic feed is also less vulnerable to contamination. Conventional "chicken mash" is based on corn and soy, but it can also include slaughterhouse waste—which may be tainted with any of the germs that infected the animals themselves, says Michael Greger, MD, director of public health and animal agriculture at the Humane Society of the United States. By contrast, organic feed cannot contain by-products from mammals or poultry. "And safety isn't only about pathogens that can land you in the hospital," says Kastel. "Organic feed is also free of toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides and contains no genetically modified organisms."
To many proponents of sustainable food, however, the most desirable eggs come from smaller, local organic farms. These are much closer to what a conscientious shopper probably envisions when she picks up a dozen "cage-free" eggs at the market. And it's the life that the 150 chickens at the 20-acre Neversink Farm in the foothills of New York's Catskill Mountains enjoy, nestled amid wooded hills, fields of flowers, and a pond full of trout. At this small organic farm—established by Conor and Katie Crickmore 1 1/2 years ago—the birds have a small, rounded coop that they can leave and return to at will, restrained only by a movable electric fence that keeps them in—and predators out.
The birds at Neversink Farm are "pasture-raised"—meaning the hens are moved to a different patch of land everyday when the fence posts are shifted, allowing the chickens to hunt and peck for a new crop of grass and insects in addition to their certified organic feed, which the Crickmores grind themselves, so it is always fresh.
On our arrival, instead of screeching and cowering like caged birds, the hens cluck and circle our feet in curiosity. When one strays too far, Conor picks it up and cradles it. He describes the different chicken sounds a farmer learns to recognize. There's a squawking "complaining sound" that often means "I want corn," as opposed to the singsong sound the hens make when they're foraging. Both are different from the "egg-laying" sound, which is a loud caw. And the birds coo themselves to sleep.
Because the flock is so small, Neversink Farm is not required to follow the FDA's Egg Safety Rule, which exempts producers with fewer than 3,000 birds. (As a certified organic farm, it is bound by the National Organic Program.) But the Crickmores are so confident of the safety of their product that they consume their own eggs raw in homemade mayonnaise. With a small flock and ample space, manure management is not a major problem. Conor and Katie scatter a new layer of straw on the floor of the coop every day, protecting the birds from their excrement and allowing the manure to dry for composting later. In spring and summer, it will be used to fertilize their vegetable fields.
Being out in the fields and not crowded into tight quarters, the hens don't spread infections as quickly as caged hens do, and farmers say they develop healthier immune systems this way. The birds can also engage in their natural behaviors, including "dust bathing," which cleans their feathers, says Honor Schauland, campaign assistant for the Organic Consumers Association, who raises chickens for eggs on her farm in northeastern Minnesota.
Research suggests that pasture-raised eggs may even have superior nutritional content. Scientists at Pennsylvania State University found 2 1/2 times more omega-3s and twice the vitamin E in the eggs of pasture-raised hens (which were given feed as a supplement to their forage) than those of caged hens that were fed only standard commercial mash. "Leafy plants like grasses, white clover, red clover, alfalfa, and legumes contain more vitamins and unsaturated fatty acids than standard mash does," says Heather Karsten, PhD, associate professor of crop and soil sciences at Penn State, who conducted the study. (Some producers of both organic and conventional eggs enrich their hens' feed to boost omega-3s or other nutrients.)
So, Which Eggs Are Safest?
The issue is highly contentious among poultry experts. Claims and counterclaims ping-pong back and forth between the opposing camps. Some commercial producers contend that cleanliness can be a greater challenge in cage-free facilities, because the birds mill around at the bottom of the henhouse, stepping in each other's excrement. And birds that range outside, they say, can pick up PCBs or other contaminants from the soil.
Organic producers counter with research showing that the fewer birds per henhouse, the lower the risks. "Cage-free and organic flocks are, by definition, smaller because you can't fit as many into the henhouse," says Dr. Greger at the Humane Society. Does this mean that organic eggs are 100% safe? No. Vigilance and enforcement are still farm-by-farm initiatives. If any egg producers fail to keep rats and mice out of their farms—or if they buy infected flocks to begin with—those eggs may be tainted.
In general, though, the risks of infection in both organic and conventional eggs remain low. The CDC and food scientists estimate that, nationally, only 1 in 20,000 eggs is contaminated. "You could literally eat raw eggs for sixty years and never encounter one that is positive for Salmonella," says Kevin M. Keener, PhD, associate professor of food science and food process engineer at Purdue University. But if you should be one of the unlucky ones to ingest a Salmonella-tainted egg, the consequences could be fever and upset stomach—or hospitalization and even death, particularly among the very young or very old.
That's why we all have a stake in industry practices that will give us...a good egg.
—Additional reporting by Anne Underwood via Prevention Magazine 11/3/2011
What's in a Claim?
Any carton of eggs you buy is likely to be plastered with descriptive terms. Some are meaningful, but some are misleading. Read what these labels really mean:
Certified Humane Raised and Handled
Meets the standards of the Humane Farm Animal Care program—an independent nonprofit. The standards include being cage-free and having sufficient space to engage in natural behaviors such as dust bathing and perching.
United Egg Producers Certified
The eggs were produced in compliance with industry-codified standard practices. (More than 80% of commercial eggs carry this seal.)
The hens eat vegetarian feed, with no animal slaughterhouse products.
Hens must live in an open space, not a cage or a coop, but the "open space" can be inside a crowded henhouse. Both organic and conventional hens can be cage-free.
Similar to cage-free, except that birds have some degree of outdoor access—though the amount, duration, or quality of that outdoor time is not specified.
Hens are allowed to range on fresh pasture. Often they are housed in trailers that can be towed to different fields.
Hens must be given organic feed, which contains no toxic pesticides, herbicides, or fungicides and no GMOs or slaughterhouse by-products. They must never be caged, and they must have outdoor access. The USDA certifies this designation.