About 80 percent of consumers who frequently buy organic products believe it’s important that organic eggs come from chickens that spend time outside, according to a 2016 Consumer Report’s survey. But a recent article in The Washington Post has revealed that Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, one of the country’s largest egg operations, which is home to 1.6 million chickens that supply more than 10% of all organic eggs sold in the U.S., doesn’t allow their birds to set foot outside.
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While Herbruck’s wouldn’t speak to reporters, some anonymous sources familiar with the operation made the above claim. The Post article goes on to say that, according to a building plan, “each of the nine long rectangular barns at Herbruck’s holds about 180,000 birds, or more than three hens per square foot of floor space.”
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Pretty frustrating, right? Especially since, per USDA guidelines, organic livestock are supposed to have “access to the outdoors,” get “direct sunlight” and “fresh air,” and be able to engage in “natural behavior” such as dust-bathing, foraging for food, and short flights—all of which are pretty impossible in close indoor quarters. (Here’s everything you need to know to raise your own backyard chickens.)
How is this allowed to happen? According to the Post, the USDA allows large operations to sell their eggs as organic because their barns have “porches,” which USDA officials say constitutes “outdoor” space. What do these “porches” consist of? Typically, “walled-in areas with a roof, hard floors and screening on one side.”
Related: Two Huge Cases Of Organic Food Fraud Have Been Exposed. Here’s What You Should Know.
To infuriate you even further, in 2011, the USDA’s National Organic Standards Board voted unanimously to reclassify these porches as “indoors,” and said that outdoor access is “a basic tenet of organic production.” However, the proposal to tweak the guidelines has been stalled due to objections from Herbruck’s and other large egg operations, and farm groups representing large conventional agriculture companies, according to the Post.
What’s A Consumer To Do?
Don’t despair—you still have power as a consumer to make sure you’re getting organic eggs from happy chicks who have frolicked and foraged well beyond a screened-in porch. Follow these handy tips:
Seek out eggs from smaller farms. According to the Post, the “vast majority” of small organic egg farms in the U.S. allow hens outside, including all the farms that produce eggs for the brand Pete and Gerry’s. Of course, your easiest source of high-quality organic eggs probably come from your local farmers’ market. Just ask what the hens are fed and how much time they get to spend outside before you buy.
Reconsider certain brands. Organic eggs from Herbruck’s are sold under the Eggland’s Best label, and other large operations sell their eggs to a variety of store brands, according to the Post.
Look for these labels (in addition to USDA Organic). Label claims such as “free-range” and “pasture-raised” are unregulated and don’t ensure outdoor access, unless they’re also accompanied by the third-party verified label such as Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, and American Humane Certified. Certified Humane is by far the most common, so if you can only remember one, make it that. Pete and Gerry’s and Vital Farms are two national brands that offer eggs from small farms that are both USDA Organic and Certified Humane.