Should you trust the word “Organic” when you see it on your food labels? Regrettably, 74% of Americans do not based on the most recent survey conducted by the market research firm The Mintel Group. I say regrettably because while not perfect, the USDA Organic program is one of the most successful and reliable standards ever implemented in the food industry. It has simultaneously revived the ability of smaller farmers and producers to compete with “Big Ag,” and at the same time, it’s given consumers a choice about what goes into their bodies and into the environment.
Part of the skepticism around organic is a lack of education about what organic means. Many people believe that “anyone can say it.” This is definitely not true (it is, however, true of the terms “all natural” and “farm fresh” which have no definition or standard whatsoever). Every category is a little different, but every organic product must be comprised of all organic ingredients and be annually certified by an independent organic certification agency, all under the oversight of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In the egg category, in order to be labeled USDA Organic, our hens must have received 100% organic feed from the time they are born and the pasture they graze on must have been kept free of pesticides or herbicides for a period of at least 3 years. There are even stipulations that address humane animal care, such as not allowing cages and having regular access to the outdoors.
So, are all organic eggs the same then? Definitely not. The regulations mentioned above are the minimum standard (and a very good one at that). But some giant egg producers who have seen the growth in organic have converted some of their conventional egg production to organic and are now only following the letter of the law, and not the spirit. For example, one producer in Michigan keeps millions of hens on one organic “farm” that is really an industrial scale egg complex. The “outside access” for these birds is token at best with only small doors at one end of giant enclosures leading to a small concrete porch. These birds live their lives inside massive warehouse aviary systems. It’s better than being caged, but it’s still not really getting to be a chicken – pecking in the grass, running, dust bathing, etc. At Pete and Gerry’s, we follow the USDA Organic standards and we also are Certified Humane Free Range, which means we take a host of additional measures to ensure our birds are happy and able to behave like real chickens.
As a member of the Organic Trade Association, I, and all our family farmers, have supported an effort to strengthen the humane animal care aspects of the organic rules. After a three-year effort, we finally were successful; but then recently, the Trump Administration postponed the rule change, and that may ultimately mean it’s not implemented. We will continue to push for this change (see recent blog post on this), but in the meantime, you can trust that our brand will continue to exceed the required standards.
So can you trust organic? Yes, to a great extent you can. But it’s certainly possible that some brands who are organic are not doing everything the way you would hope, while still being technically organic. Our advice at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs is to understand the organic standard for the categories you buy and know that it is being enforced — but also understand that it’s worth digging a little deeper into how each brand is complying with and or exceeding that standard.
 The Natural/Organic Shopper – U.S., July 2017, The Mintel Group