My mom was over and asked, “Are your eggs organic?”
“Oh yeah, of course!” I said, “We use organic feed.”
But I’ve been thinking about it, and here’s the thing: I’m not sure our eggs are organic. Not really, not technically. I mean, our chickens have a good life. Compared to battery-caged birds they are egg makin’ princesses in a coop palace.
They eat organic layer feed plus all the old broccoli plants, nasturtiums, bean leaves, overgrown cucumbers, squishy tomatoes, pear cores, brewers grains, leftover rice and (ahem) unfinished scrambled eggs the garden and kitchen can muster. I have no qualms about how the chickens are treated or fed. But they don’t have unfettered access to the outdoors. They don’t really get to free range. They aren’t pastured in some idealic, Joel Salatin-type way, on acres of carefully managed grass.
Here’s Wikipedia’s summary of organic egg production standards in the United States:
Organic egg production is the production of eggs through organic means. In this process, the poultry are fed organic feed. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, organic means that the laying hens must have access to the outdoors and cannot be raised in cages. Organic egg producers cannot use antibiotics except during an infectious outbreak. Only natural molting can occur within the flock; forced molting is not allowed. Organic certification also requires maintenance of basic animal welfare standards.
So are my eggs organic?
It’s complicated, really, how we pick and chose where our values in the garden lie, and how those values line up – and don’t line up – with tidy little packaged names. It’s a complicated thing, to work out your own analysis of what is and is not ok, whether you are raising beets or eggs.
But you know what’s more complicated than coming face-to-face with a matrix of values and pinpointing where you fall? Trying to pick out a carton of eggs at the megamart. It’s enough to send a thoughtful consumer into an acute decision paralysis fit, right there in the cooler aisle.
- Organic – the Big Lebowski of titles. Everyone knows it’s important, but no one really knows why.
- Cage-free – what about really, really big cages?
- Free-range – Chicken house must have door to outside. In practice, chickens remain as suspicious of the outside as other animals who are routinely caged inside from birth, like humans. Hence their ba-gawking entreats to any chicken who shows an interest in the strange far-away door: “Come back, Speckles, come back!” Don’t go toward the light!”
- All natural – as opposed to those partially natural eggs? Perhaps they are snapped together like plastic Easter eggs, a natural half and an unnatural half? Oooh, creepy.
- Free-roaming – pretty much all chickens get free roaming and free texting, unless they are on a really budget cell phone plan. Usually free roaming doesn’t apply to international roaming, but chickens rarely fly.
- Omega-3 enriched – I can’t get my chickens to eat salmon. I’ve tried, they won’t do it.
- Vegetarian – anyone who’s ever seen a chicken with a worm knows that these animals are not natural vegetarians, but feeding them chicken brains is probably a bad idea, too.
- Pastured – not to be confused with pasteurized eggs, which inexplicably come in a milk carton.
- Humane Certified – Humane Certified is great, but Chickene Certified would probably mean more to the chickens.
- Animal welfare approved – Republicans are pretty sure these chickens only have eggs so they can get more welfare. They hate free-loading poultry.
I think you get my point. Labels only occationally serve to clarify, in the world of egg purchasing. Plumbing the depth of my own relationship with food, environmental impact, labor rights, animal rights and financial consideration is still less daunting than parsing the bullshit marketing terminology surrounding a carton of eggs.
So after giving this “Organic?” question some serious thought, I think the answer is: it doesn’t actually matter. Ol’ Joel Salatin talks about “beyond organic” and that’s what backyard production of fruit and vegetables and honey and eggs and (if you go in for it) meat is all about.
My eggs might not be technically organic. In point of fact, my vegetables wouldn’t get organic certification either because I generally use Miracle Gro potting soil when I start my seeds indoors. I’m no biodynamic purist. But I use compost and home-mixed organic fertilizer and foliar fish emulsion to feed the transplants and I use vinegar and deep mulching to kill weeds in the garden.
I know everything about my hens and their eggs, and I know everything about my kale and my beets and my beans. I know how they were grown, how they were nurtured and how the people involved in their production were treated. “The people” are me, and I’m overworked, I tell you! Massively overworked!
Labels are one thing – and are very important, in their place. But labels are a stand-in for the full story. Growing my own, I have the full story right in front of me.