Good Egg, Bad Egg

When you buy eggs, how long do you stand in the aisle, reading the labels and trying to decide which carton to get? For many of us, the choice is straightforward- the cheapest dozen, or the brand you’ve always bought. But for others, stories of the benefits of the organic choice, the perils of antibiotic use in livestock, and animal cruelty, have prompted a closer look at the labels on egg cartons. However, labels such as “USDA Organic” and “cage-free” may not mean what you think they do.

There has been significant media attention[1] in recent years to food safety concerns stemming from the conditions at the large farms known as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), which have supplied the majority of the country’s livestock for consumption since the 1970s. News of outbreaks detrimental to human health such as salmonella and mad cow disease have caused American consumers to start asking more questions about where their food comes from and what regulations are imposed to protect us. The agriculture industry has responded, not with policy changes or greater transparency, but with marketing schemes fronting a concerted effort to shield the operations from public scrutiny. Awareness of health concerns and demand for organic products has made health labels a profitable choice for producers regardless of their actual practices. Eggs provide a good example of the marketing efforts that perpetuate misconceptions about such practices, about whether USDA standards have been imposed, and about the extent of those standards.

Claims stamped on egg cartons are regulated to varying degrees by USDA. The basic egg grades are strictly regulated by USDA, but have little to do with the nutritional or health qualities of the eggs. Almost all eggs sold in grocery stores are labeled “Grade A,” which is actually a signifier for the thickness of the shell and viscosity of the egg whites- Grade B eggs are more commonly used in processed foods.[2] The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) sets standards that farms and handling operations must meet to gain certification and use the USDA Organic seal. These standards are centered on the absence of certain disallowed production methods such as genetic engineering, and use of synthetic chemicals, antibiotics and hormones.  Eggs bearing the USDA seal are audited for compliance once per year by a third-party certifying agent (7 C.F.R. § 205.403). Though NOP regulations prescribe seemingly high standards for livestock living conditions intended to prevent the spread of disease (7 C.F.R. § 205), in practice, the Code leaves large loopholes through which facilities are able to meet the standard for certification without significantly improving conditions under which animals are raised. For example, livestock are required to have “year-round access . . . to the outdoors” (7 C.F.R. § 205.239), but the density of animals indoors, the meaning of “access,” the amount of “access” provided per day, and the quality of the “outdoors” into which the animals are released are all left undefined. As such, there are operations that meet the USDA organic standard that house large numbers of birds in warehouses such that there is little room for movement or ability to actually utilize points of outdoor access, and the outdoor space itself is just a concrete slab.

The labels “free-range” and “cage-free” similarly do not signify actual outdoor access. As opposed to living in battery cages with space the size of a sheet of paper, hens that are raised cage-free have more room for movement and nesting, but still live in large flocks that do not ever see the outdoors. Caging standards, as well as other industry guidelines, are set by the leading trade organization, United Egg Producers, which promotes only self-imposed regulation “based on science,” a reference to the group’s opposition to the use of animal welfare as a justification for standard-setting, and rejection of the branch of science that links inhumane conditions to human health concerns. While “free-range” is a USDA-defined term, neither “free-range” nor “cage-free” claims are subject to third-party audits.

The minimal standards for organic operations and lack of oversight for non-organic operations serve as the backdrop for the intensifying public scrutiny of CAFOs. The farm lobby has responded to animal welfare groups’ attempts to publicize CAFO practices with so-called “ag-gag” legislation, which suppress whistleblower attempts by making it a misdemeanor to enter the premises of or apply for a job at an animal facility with the intention of using a recording device.[3] These laws have been proposed in ten states, and have already passed in Iowa, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, and most recently Utah.

Though animal welfare groups are leading the battle for public awareness and now making the constitutional challenges to recently passed legislation, they are bolstered by support within the science, public health, and environmental communities. Studies of the increasing prevalence of antibiotic resistance in food borne pathogens like salmonella link the health of livestock to human health. Likewise, environmental studies have shown contamination of drinking water by pathogens carried via animal waste that has leaked into surface water from CAFOs, which generate 575 billion pounds of animal manure annually. As the scientific evidence and environmental impacts of current agricultural practices continue to mount, the jury is still out on where the good eggs are in our agriculture industry, and whether USDA will tighten the yoke on farming practices.


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