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“Organic” Doesn’t Mean “Humane,” and Trump Likes It That Way

Obama issued a rule to help confused consumers. His successor killed it.

Sebastian D'Souza/Getty

It’s a difficult decision, buying eggs at the supermarket. The refrigerator section houses rows upon rows of diverse cartons, each advertising a different color, size, and quality. The cheapest eggs, birthed from factory-farmed, pesticide-fed hens, are usually packaged in styrofoam and priced at about $2.50. Then it gets complicated.

For customers who prefer eggs from hens who aren’t crammed into cages, there are $4 cartons labeled free-range or pasture-raised. (Eggs “certified humane” by the non-profit Humane Farm Animal Care are considered the gold standard.) And for consumers more worried about chemicals and pesticides, a carton that’s “certified organic” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture costs around the same price. The most expensive eggs are for those who want both: It usually costs $5 to $6 for a dozen eggs that are certified as organic and humane. Many consumers often don’t think they need the more expensive eggs, believing that the “organic” label is an all-encompassing seal of purity. It’s not: As the Cornucopia Institute shows in its yearly “Scrambled Eggs” report, many industrial-scale organic egg producers cram thousands of hens into windowless barns, giving them little personal space or real access to the outdoors. CBS News has called this “the scam of organic eggs.”

The organics industry has been trying to address this issue for more than a decade, mainly by pushing for stronger animal welfare regulations that would heighten the certification requirements for the “organic” label, making the non-government “humane” label obsolete. They eventually succeeded. In April 2016, the Obama administration’s USDA finalized a rule that would require all organic poultry and livestock producers to treat chickens and cows humanely—a big deal, considering some estimates show close to half of all organic eggs come from hens with questionable outdoor access. The rule was set to go into effect in May 2018—until the Trump administration intervened.

On Monday, the USDA announced that it will officially withdraw the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) rule, which, as Modern Farmer reported, would have had required “USDA Organic”-certified products to come from animals with “enough room to sit, walk, stretch out, and stand up without touching either any other animal or the walls of the enclosure,” as well as “year-round access to outdoor space, which must include include contact with actual natural things, like plants and soil.” The OLPP rule would have ended a loophole allowing farmers to claim small, screened-in porches as outdoor space for hens, and prohibited practices like “tail docking,” where a cow’s tail is partially removed.

These requirements had widespread support within the $43 billion organic food industry—including the Organic Trade Association, which represents most organic food companies and is suing the Trump administration over the OLPP rule. They argue that most organic farmers already comply with the OLPP requirements in order to secure the coveted “humane” label—and they’re unfairly competing with organic companies that don’t. “The reason that we [already comply with OLPP] it is because it’s what consumers of organic foods expect, it’s what they imagine,” said Jesse Laflamme, chief executive farmer at Pete and Gerry’s, a large-scale certified humane and organic egg company that sells nationally and sources from small farming operations. “And we’re competing with some of these organic egg factory farms that are not in the spirit of organic, that are doing it cheap, undercutting and deceiving consumers.”

Laflamme specifically called out Eggland’s Best, another large-scale organic egg company that doesn’t have the “humane” certification. Eggland’s Best hens are cage-free—“not kept in cages and are free to roam,” its website says.They are provided with sunlight, shade, shelter, an exercise area, fresh air, and are protected from predators.” But the cage-free designation means the company can source eggs from farms like Hebruck’s Poultry Ranch, where nearly 2 million hens live in nine barns with open metal shelving, according to a report last year in The Washington Post. The barns have three hens living in every square foot of floor space, and no actual outdoor space—just a screened-in porch. “Of all the cartons of organic eggs sold in the United States, more than 1 in 10 originates” from Hebruck’s, sold under the Eggland’s Best label, the Post reported.

Laflamme’s hope was that the OLPP rule, by forcing all organic producers to adhere to more costly humane practices, would level the playing field—and thus, reduce the price inconsistency in this segment of the market. There would also be less customer confusion over whether organic products were humanely raised. According to a 2014 ASPCA survey, 68 percent of organic consumers wrongly assume that certified-organic animals have access to outdoor pasture and fresh air throughout the day. “The overwhelming majority of consumers assume there is a welfare component to organic,” LaFlamme said. “When they find out there’s not, that casts a dark shadow across all organic products—a shadow of mistrust, whether it’s cereal or fruit or eggs.”

But the OLPP rule faced vehement opposition by big agriculture, which Laflamme said has outsized control over the growing organics market. “The majority of organic farmers do produce organic eggs [humanely],” he said. “But these factory operations”—which generally aren’t humane—“have a high percentage of the organic hens.” Big agriculture also has considerable political influence on Democrats and Republicans. NPR reported last year that opponents of the rule found powerful allies in Congress. “Both Kansas Republican Pat Roberts, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and the committee’s senior Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, have called on the USDA to revise the [OLPP] rules,” the report read. “Stabenow, who represents Michigan, has received thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from members of the Herbruck family.”

Groups like the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Pork Producers Council led the charge against OLPP rules. They claimed that animal welfare requirements were expensive, that they would prevent more organic farming, and that animal welfare has “nothing to do” with the concept of organic. Trump’s USDA eventually agreed, and said it’s up to the individual consumer to be aware that “organic” does not mean humane. “As more consumers become aware of this disparity, they will either seek specific brands of organic eggs or seek animal welfare labels in addition to the USDA Organic seal,” the agency wrote in its notice announcing the rule withdrawal.

But if consumers do choose to seek animal welfare labels in addition to organic, they’ll pay more than the average price of an organic, inhumane egg. That’s an easy decision to make in principle, but difficult once you actually get to the store and stare at prices on the boxes. “Conventional eggs are so cheap—you can buy a dozen for less than a bottle of water,” Laflamme said. “A lot of consumers will balk at paying over five dollars for a carton of eggs, but they’ll go to Starbucks and not blink an eye at the cost of a Frappuccino, that’s not even food.”