Recently, I opened my refrigerator in Palm Coast, Fla., and discovered that my brother had left behind a carton of organic eggs. A package insert told a story about one of the egg farmer’s favorite goats, whose death left the farm’s other goats sad.
The story had a dateline of Massachusetts, but the carton had a Texas license number, and it had somehow made it to Florida. That’s quite a journey for a half-dozen eggs.
A little research showed that The Country Hen is based in Hubbardston, Mass., but the farm’s eggs are carried by distributors in many parts of the country, and are shipped by mail to places where customers cannot get them in stores. Aficionados of organic Omega-3 enriched eggs apparently love them. An informal, blind taste test by The Washington Post’s resident egg-spert showed that actual eaters couldn’t tell the difference.
From coast to coast, consumers have eggs on the brain. The recent egg recall has rekindled old fears about salmonella and egg safety, and free-range eggs (complete with goat stories) are looking more attractive to some shoppers.
But are organic eggs really safer or better than inorganic ones?
That depends on who you ask. In a recent New York Times article, Jeffrey D. Armstrong of Michigan State University warned, “Some groups tend to cherry-pick studies to show the results that they want consumers to see.” The Humane Society of the United States, which claims that confining hens in cages increases the chance of salmonella infection, denies Armstrong’s accusation of selectivity.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as is their wont, went one step further, using the egg recall as a chance to push for totally vegan diets, highlighting the perceived suffering of the hens and the waste of the recall.
The recall has also led to higher visibility for “locavores,” who try to restrict their diet to foods that are produced within a certain distance of where they live. I am told that 100 miles is a popular locavore range, but in Vermont, which has many farms and many locavores, I think some people measure the distance in yards. As with buying organic, buying local is more complicated than it may at first appear. And while locavores make many arguments such as the importance of supporting local businesses or minimizing the use of transportation fuels, even they do not usually argue that food is intrinsically better just because they can watch it while it grows.
The real question is whether it is worth paying a premium for organic or otherwise allegedly “healthier” foods. Although I get in trouble at home every time I try to apply rational science to food purchases (and, truth be told, I can be as irrational as anyone else on this subject), I cannot seem to stop myself. So let’s take a moment to consider the facts before we walk, bike or drive our gas guzzlers to the nearest farmer’s market.
The first issue is safety, and the second is nutrition. These are not the same thing. But they do boil down to a single question: Are organic foods really healthier for you?
Not as far as we know, according to the Mayo Clinic. And though the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for regulating and labeling organic food, it does not claim that the products are in any way safer or more nutritious. The Mayo Clinic goes on to say the health risk from consuming trace amounts of pesticides in non-organic meat and produce is negligible.
Still, people want “wholesome” food, and the popularity of authors like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver shows that more Americans are willing to seriously think about what they’re eating. But “organic” has become a magic cure-all label, and is often falsely seen as synonymous with “healthy.” As NYU professor Marion Nestle points out, “Organic junk food is still junk food.”
Those who produce organic food, however, have a vested interest in preserving the association in the public mind between food branded organic and food that’s good for you. If Americans ate less, and ate more produce (organic or not), a great many of the problems with our national health would be lessened. But that sort of solution won’t sell more organic eggs.
What we pay at the grocery store has very little to do with the price of food itself. Instead, it goes to cover transportation, marketing and retailing overhead. Even with all of those additional costs, Americans still spend much less of our income on food than almost any other society in history. And if the USDA organic label can get shoppers to shell out a few extra bucks, all the better, as far as producers are concerned.
Even if it’s not healthier, there are other reasons you can choose to buy organic, of course. A minority claim to be able to taste a difference, and simply chalk up the choice to preference. A much larger cohort perceive buying organically (or locally) as an environmental choice. Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek, whose RSA keynote lecture “First As Tragedy, Then As Farce” recently became an unlikely viral video, argues that most people buy organic food not because they truly believe it to be better, but because the increased cost is redeemed by the sense of doing something for the planet.
Are organic foods better for the environment? The answer is complicated, and not yet totally clear. But learning about the complex issues of sustainability and ecological stewardship is harder and more time consuming than just looking for the word “organic” and buying accordingly. The choice to buy organic for environmental reasons is a political one, and has nothing to do with health or safety.
If health is your main concern, even the recent recall is not a reason to assume that ordinary mass-produced eggs are less safe than eggs from Massachusetts, marketed by a guy who loves his livestock. Next time a goat endorses a particular brand of eggs, take it with a grain of salt.