What Makes an Egg Organic?

Lots of people buy organic eggs because they don't want to support inhumane, environmentally unsound factory farms. And federal regulations for U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic certification are intended to foster the most natural behavior possible for the animals that are being raised. When it comes to chickens, that means easy access to the outdoors and spacious, well-ventilated living conditions. With that in mind, the Livestock Committee of the USDA's National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) has recommended that stricter definitions should be added to the National Organic Program (NOP) Program Handbook to clarify what "outdoor access" means when it comes to the living conditions of chickens in certified-organic operations.

The NOSB says that outdoor conditions should include open air and direct sunshine, and that wood, metal, or concrete "porches" don't meet the criteria for true outdoor access. In addition, birds must have plentiful, large exit doors appropriately distributed around the buildings they're housed in, ensuring that all birds not only have ready access to the outdoors, but also can exit more than one bird at a time. Many producers of organic eggs are already meeting or exceeding these parameters. But tightening the standards will help ensure that all producers are following the practices that consumers seeking organic eggs expect—especially large, industrial-scale producers who tend not to be transparent about their operations.

According to NOP spokesperson Soo Kim, the NOP is currently reviewing feedback related to the draft of the new guidance, and will make an announcement when it issues final guidance documents as part of the NOP Program Handbook. Kim says that this final guidance will be issued this year. In the meantime, here's what you can do to find eggs from farms that are implementing humane standards right now:

Check the label.
A "cage-free" designation doesn't tell you as much as the Certified Humane Raised and Handled label. This label means the producer complied with a voluntary, thorough inspection process carried out by an independent animal-welfare group. See our story on "free range" and other egg labeling terms for more information.

Look for organic.
Organic is a USDA-regulated term that not only sets standards for how the chickens are raised, but also requires that organic eggs come from chickens whose feed is not irradiated, treated with synthetic fertilizer or pesticides, genetically engineered, or made with animal by-products. The Cornocopia Institute offers an Egg Scorecard that rates producers of organic eggs on how they put "outdoor access" into practice.

Look locally.
For the freshest eggs, of course, head to your local farmer's market and try to find organic eggs produced locally. Bonus: You can actually talk to the farmers about how they treat their chickens and even visit the farm to see for yourself.

Use your fresh finds wisely, in recipes that highlight the superior taste of fresh, humanely raised organic eggs. We have a few right here:

#1: The New American Omelet. This simple, delicious omelet lets the organic eggs and tender vegetables take center stage.

#2: Bacon and Poached Egg Salad with Mixed Greens. This classic bistro dish is the perfect light yet filling supper.

#3: Quiche Lorraine. A prebaked pastry shell makes easy work of traditional this quiche; for another rendition, make Maria Rodale's versatile quiche recipe.

#4: Scrambled Eggs with Pasta and Cherry Tomatoes. This deliciously different dinner idea comes together quickly; it's also a great way to use up leftover pasta.

#5: Classic Cr?me Br?l?e. Since egg yolks are a key ingredient in rich cr?me br?l?e, organic eggs are a boon when making this special dessert.

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