You might be sick of hearing about eggs by now, and I can’t blame you. The 2022 bird flu outbreak. The resulting spike in egg prices and the subsequent black market for cheaper eggs. The backyard hens debacle. The assurance that maybe, just maybe, egg prices are stabilizing enough to stop thinking about them so hard. But now that we do have eggs on the brain, we can lend some of that processing power to considering where our eggs come from, and which farms are worth supporting with our dollars.
Nonprofit consumer education and watchdog group The Cornucopia Institute has announced an update to its popular Organic Egg Scorecard, a tool that shoppers can consult when deciding which eggs to buy. While the Scorecard has been available online for years, the latest version is, according to the press release, the result of “two years of rigorous investigation into the organic egg marketplace” and ranks 150 brands on the ethics and transparency of their farming practices. This type of evaluation has become increasingly necessary in a marketplace glutted with options.
“As demand for organic eggs rises, corporations are spending millions to cash in,” reads the press release in part. “The result is a supply chain of organic egg ‘farms’ that meet the minimum requirements for organic certification while still using industrial practices.”
Translation: Simply seeing the word “organic” on a label is no longer good enough. If you want to know anything whatsoever about the product, you have to look closer.
The Organic Egg Scorecard ranks every brand on a scale of one to five stars. Okay, technically, the “stars” are little brown eggs. A five-egg rating represents the industry’s gold standard, while the one-egg farms are scarcely better than factory farms, either in their treatment of animals or their lack of transparency.
Here’s just a sampling of evaluation criteria you’ll find on each egg brand in the Organic Egg Scorecard, as explained on the Cornucopia Institute website:
- Flock size: Smaller flocks point to better animal welfare
- Hen housing: Coops should allow for chickens’ natural behaviors, as well as unobstructed entrances and exits so the animals can access pastures as desired
- Quality of outdoor access: Animals should be able to forage year-round
- Enrichments: Quality-of-life considerations like novel food and perches
- Alterations: Beaks help the animals explore their world, so the best organic farms eschew any alterations to the beak
- Feed sourcing: Ideally, animals receive a varied diet; even better if the products are local, which means a lower carbon footprint
- Environmental impacts: The farms work to keep not only the animals thriving, but also the soil, vegetation, and air that surrounds them on the farm
Obviously, assembling this comprehensive rating system takes a lot of work, and in its most recent update the Cornucopia Institute wanted to tweak the process to reflect some additional information about organic farms for consumers.
Michele Marchetti, Deputy Director of The Cornucopia Institute, told The Takeout that the newest Scorecard has a revised scoring system for animal welfare concerns, as well as a new rubric for the environmental impact of a given organic farm.
The Institute begins by sending surveys to every farm, asking them to self-report their practices. Marchetti explained that these reports are then corroborated by the organization by communicating with each individual farm via phone calls, interviews, and emails, and by supplementing all the findings with independent market research.
On-site visits to farms are also conducted. These site visits, led by Cornucopia’s resident organic investigator, Anne Ross, JD, add “another layer of certainty to our information,” Marchetti said.
Just because a farm performs well in an evaluation doesn’t mean it isn’t still watched closely for infraction—rule breakers are tracked. The newest Scorecard also features 12 new brands and will soon add 10 more, with plans to continually add whichever new brands enter the marketplace.
Your local grocery stores might not carry the brands listed at the top of the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard, or if they do, those eggs are bound to be some of the store’s most expensive options. That’s why, for practicality’s sake, it’s best to consult the Scorecard for information rather than prescription. Even the website suggests that consumers “use our tool to buy the highest-rated organic egg brand you can afford.”
Here’s an example: I already know I can find Vital Farms eggs in many of my local grocery stores, so I looked them up on the list before buying. This brand has a four-egg rating on the Scorecard, and it sounds pretty decent for being a national and readily available brand. The flocks are on the larger side (not great), though the brand earns top marks for enrichments and outdoor space. I’m disappointed, however, to find some of the farms under this label have beak-trimmed flocks.
Knowing all this, I can choose to continue shelling out for Vital Farms—which are pricey, but since I eat eggs every day I consider the quality a worthy tradeoff for cost—or I can see if any other brands carried at my local grocery stores compare. If Vital Farms is the most high-scoring option I have access to, I’ll probably stick with it, since it’s already factored into my grocery budget.
Shoppers can find similar scorecards for organic dairy, beef, poultry, and even things like snack bars and yogurt. The goal, as Marchetti explained it, is not only to spotlight the farms doing right by their consumers and the environment but to call out the brands that fail to do so. When we know more about how our food hits the table, we can see past shiny marketing and packaging and prioritize what matters to us.