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USDA Study Compares Organic and Conventional Eggs, But Misses Big Picture

(Beyond Pesticides, July 12, 2010) A study comparing the quality (measured in fat and protein content, egg white and shell thickness, and other physical characteristics) of various types of chicken eggs, including conventional, free-range and organic, failed to examine pesticide residues or vitamin content, nor does it consider the environmental and health impacts of conventional, chemical-based production systems, according to food and environmental safety advocates. The study is receiving attention after a recent article in Time magazine points out that organic eggs are often three times more expensive than conventional factory farm eggs. The study concludes that there is no substantial quality difference between eggs produced under different production systems.

The study, “Physical quality and composition of retail shell eggs,” which was originally published in the March 2010 issue of the journal Poultry Science, compares white and brown large-shell eggs with various production and nutritional differences such as traditional, cage-free, free-roaming, pasteurized, nutritionally-enhanced (omega-3 fatty acids), fertile and organic. The study examined two dozen eggs of each variety taken from two Athens, GA grocery stores on three separate occasions. ARS food technologist Deana Jones and her team in the agency’s Egg Safety and Quality Research Unit, found that on average, the eggs were of similar quality with respect to fat and protein content.

“We found no meaningful differences at all,” Ms. Jones told Time magazine. “We sampled eggs from a number of stores and kept getting the same results over and over. For shoppers, the decision comes down to your ethical and moral choices.”

The study did not examine other nutritional factors that farmers using organic methods often claim to be higher in organic eggs, such as vitamins A and E, beta carotene, folate, omega-3 fatty acids. Organic poultry and egg production also prohibits the prophylactic use of antibiotics and arsenic in chicken feed, as well as requiring outdoor access and organically produced chicken feed. Chemically-treated grains in conventional chicken feed can cause environmental damage in the form of water contamination and wildlife poisoning and can be hazardous to those who work on or live near farms.

Here’s how Organic Valley, a large egg producing coop of farmers describes how their production system differs from conventional egg production:

We raise hardy birds bred to forage. That’s important, because our chickens aren’t caged. Their hen houses have natural sunlight and access to the outdoors when weather permits. And we never force molt them. We believe caring for our hens contributes to egg quality. That’s why we employ staff veterinarians and an animal wellness expert to help manage the health of our flocks. We strive for quality, not quantity. Not only do we give our flocks 100% organic feed, but we also agreed years ago on a policy requiring us to give our chickens the chlorophyll-and-mineral-rich diet and sunlight they need to produce top-quality eggs with deep yellow yolks and strong shells.

The Time magazine article does reference other studies showing that free-range chickens are more likely to be contaminated with PCBs and other environmental contaminants because of their access to the outdoors, where such pollutants may be present. While this issue may not be addressed in eggs labeled as “Free-Range,” Organic certification requires residue testing that should identify sites that have environmental contamination, making organic eggs the best option.

For more information on the importance of eating organic food for you, workers and the environment, check out Beyond Pesticides’ Eating with a Conscience food guide and organic food program page.


One Response to “USDA Study Compares Organic and Conventional Eggs, But Misses Big Picture”

  1. 1
    Jordan Kleiman Says:

    Many things one could say about this, but I’ll confine my comments to two. First, it’s my understanding that the USDA does not yet regulate the “free-range” label–i.e., anyone can call their eggs “free-range.” It’s just a marketing gimmick. Let the USDA test the eggs from my backyard flock, or from Joel Salatin’s flock. I’ve eaten many store-bought “free-range” organic eggs in the past, and their yolks are never anywhere near as orange as the ones from my birds, which actually graze all day long rather than being given the “option” to go out in a confined dirt or gravel yard for a couple of hours a day, or merely spend their lives in a slightly larger than normal cage. Unfortunately, both of the latter concessions to consumer demand can still be labeled “free-range.” It’s as though the USDA and Time Mag had never heard of the notion of the critique of “industrial organic” offered by Michael Pollan, Joel Salatin, Julie Guthman, and many others.

    Second, trusting the USDA–which has long carried water for industrial agriculture interests–to conduct a study comparing organic/free-range to factory-farmed eggs is only marginally saner than trusting the American Petroleum Industry to conduct a study of oil-drilling safety in the Gulf of Mexico. Trusting Time Magazine and other mainstream media outlets to offer an informed account of the USDA’s findings is equally stupid.

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