Sales of organic and cage-free eggs are on the rise in some parts of the country, but as of March 2012, only 5.7 percent of U.S. flocks were cage-free, and of that, only 2.9 percent of those flocks were raised organically, according to the American Egg Board.
That means that more than 90 percent of the roughly 6.5 billion table eggs we buy every month are laid by hens raised in cages in windowless factories, living shoulder to shoulder in a space the size of an 8-by-10 piece of paper, never going outside, often being fed animal by-products and growth-stimulating drugs.
Factory farming is broadly defined as raising livestock and poultry in confined conditions, with heavy use of hormones and antibiotics to increase profits. As awareness of these methods grows, voters and consumers are slowly insisting that farm animals be treated more humanely and that their feed have fewer chemicals.
But organic can be expensive. As anyone who’s shopped the supermarket egg aisle lately, the price of a dozen organic and cage-free eggs can be twice that of their factory-raised counterparts.
So what are you getting for that extra $2 or $3 you pay for organic eggs?
First, it’s important to know what is meant by cage-free (also known as “free-range”) and organic.
To qualify as organic, eggs must come from chickens that are fed only organic feed, i.e., feed that is free of animal by-products, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or other chemical additives, writes Marc Lallanilla of About.com’s Green Living website. The chickens are given antibiotics only in the event of an infection, as opposed to commercial chickens, which are fed antibiotics on a routine basis. No hormones or other drugs can be used in organic egg production. http://greenliving.about.com/od/healthyliving/a/organic_egg_certification.htm
Cage-free or free-range eggs are not necessarily organic. The United States Department of Agriculture stipulates that they must come from chickens that have some access to a small, fenced yard or patch of cement. Also, growers of cage-free chickens can feed them animal by-products and antibiotics.
Just because chickens have access to a small outdoor area doesn’t mean they get sunshine or fresh air every day. For a variety of reasons, many chickens never leave their cages.
It’s unclear how rigorously the USDA inspects free-range chickens, writes Lallanilla. “The USDA website states that in order for poultry to be labeled free-range or free-roaming, ‘Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.’ That’s it. How often, and how strictly, the USDA inspects chickens’ outdoor access is anyone’s guess.”
Lallanilla’s advice to consumers” “If you’re looking for a greener product, skip the free-range turkey, free-range chicken and other poultry — and their marked-up price tags — and head directly for the organic eggs, as these are the only ones that have strict, well-defined criteria for feed, antibiotics and processing.”
OPTIONAL stats from the American Egg Board:
- The five largest egg producing states represent approximately 50 percent of all U.S. layers.
- U.S. egg production during April 2012 was 6.54 billion table eggs.
- To date, there are approximately 179 egg producing companies with flocks of 75,000 hens or more. These companies represent about 98 percent of all the layers in the United States. In 1987, there were around 2,500 operations.
- As of march 2012, cage-free production is 5.7 percent of the total U.S. flock size. Of this, 2.9 percent is organic and 2.8 percent is other.
- Of the 219.54 million cases (estimated) of shell eggs produced in 2011: 69.7 million cases (31.7%) were further processed (for foodservice, manufacturing, retail and export); 125 million cases (56.9%) went to retail; 17.56 million cases (8.0%) went for foodservice use; and 7.3 million cases (3.3%) were exported.
- Exports of processed egg products for the first quarter of 2012 set a year-on-year record at $31.97 million, up 22.1 percent from the same period a year earlier, thanks largely to increased exports to EU-27, Mexico, Taiwan, and Canada. Table eggs export during the period were 20.89 million dozen valued at $19.35 million, up 31.2 and 42.1 percent year-on-year, respectively.
- Exports of processed egg products to Japan, the single most important export market for U.S. egg products, decreased 7.7 percent year on year to $11.84 million, accounting for 37.0 percent of U.S. total export value worldwide. Exports to the EU-27 were $10.26 million, up 121.4 percent from the same period in 2011.
- Table egg exports to Hong Kong, the top market for U.S. table eggs, reached 9.51 million dozen for an increase of 24.9 percent from the same period a year earlier. Exports to Canada, United Arab Emirates, Bahamas, were 0.54 million dozen, Netherlands Antilles and Hong Kong totaled 17.20 million dozen, accounting for 82.3 percent of U.S. total exports worldwide.
Sources: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, American Egg Board and USAPEEC.