Posers: First Fish, Now Eggs

"Organic" and "Free Range" Labels Duping Consumers

Written by Alex Reid
Posted June 10, 2011

I wrote last week about the high occurrences of mislabeling in the seafood industry. More on that here.

This week, a report from The Cornucopia Institute warns consumers of rampant mislabeling of eggs by factory farms in attempts to appeal to conscious consumers...

For… industrial-scale producers, “organic” appears to be nothing more than a profitable marketing term that they apply to the agro-industrial production system.” 

The Institute explains how producers justify slapping an "organic" label on eggs that come from chickens by substituting organic feed and eliminating harmful synthetics, such as pesticides and antibiotics, from diets.

The reality of the situation is the birds are still being raised in factory farm conditions — a far cry from the picture the "cage free" and "organic" labels paint for consumers.

Factory farms are raising up to 85 THOUSAND hens in a single building without cages, offering outdoor access and small perches as a means to claim their animals are "free range" or "organic"...


A henhouse in Southwest Wisconsin that provides birds for Organic Valley grants young chickens
no outdoor access whatsoever; the birds are exposed to no natural light in the building.*

The Institute reports approximately 80% of the organic eggs on the market today are produced via these methods.

The report, called Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture, seeks to set the story straight on where eggs are coming from and what these sustainability labels actually mean on the production end versus the consumer end.

As a consumer, it's hard not to feel confused, and even bamboozled, by marketing.

Sales of the incredible, edible egg have been on a roller coaster ride in the past ten years, thanks to salmonella outbreaks, rising food costs, and revelations by viewers of investigative films like Food, Inc., which spotlight the factory farm conditions of the chickens they come from.

It should come as no surprise, then, that organic and free range retail egg sales have been on a tear.

In 2008, UK-based British Lion Eggs reported free range retail egg sales rose by almost 20% in volume and 46% in value in the first four weeks of 2008, resulting in free range for the first time accounting for more than half of the retail market value. Three years ago, these figures translated to four in every 10 eggs sold in the retail sector were free range.

And of course, producers have capitalized on the opportunity to increase sales with umbrella terms.

So what can consumers do to ensure their eggs are coming from an ethical, organic/free range farm?

Supplemental to the Institute's report is a web-based rating tool called the Organic Egg Scorecard, which rates 70 different market name-brand and private-label organic "shell" eggs on 22 criteria valued by organic consumers.

The scorecard is based on a year's worth of research into the organic egg business, and it allows the user to pinpoint brands of eggs in their region that come to market via the best organic farming practices and ethics. It highlights for consumers examples of ethical family farms and their brands, while exposing factory farm producers and retail brands that threaten the livelihood of these farmers.

The Cornucopia Institute hopes the report "will empower consumers and wholesale buyers who want to invest their food dollars to protect hard-working family farmers that are in danger of being forced off the land by a landslide of eggs from factory farms."


Brigid Darragh

*photo by The Cornucopia Institute

P.S. Angela Guss reported on the benefits of buying locally-farmed eggs last summer, following the recall by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms in Iowa of half a billion eggs from food wholesalers, distribution centers, and food service companies across the country due to hundreds of people being infected with salmonella. You can read her piece here.