Regardless of which came first—the chicken or the egg—you can bet the first one was organic, raised outdoors without added drugs or chemicals. And as more people discover the health and environmental benefits of organic food, industrial poultry and egg production has fallen out of favor due to their heavy use of chemicals, drugs, and factory-farm settings.
Organic eggs, as well as conventional eggs, are described by weight per USDA standards. The six weight classes are: Jumbo, Extra Large, Large, Medium, Small, and Peewee.
In addition to weight, the USDA also sets quality grade standards for eggs. The standards measure the appearance and quality of the eggshell as well as the quality of the yolk and the egg white, or albumen. Eggs are rated AA, A or B based on the factor with the lowest rating. Therefore, even an egg with an AA yolk and albumen will be rated B if its eggshell is a B.
USDA Standards for Organic Eggs
To qualify as organic, eggs must come from chickens that are fed only organic feed (i.e., feed that is free of animal by-products, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or other chemical additives). No genetically modified foods can be used. Additionally, organic eggs must come from chickens that are given antibiotics only in the event of an infection—commercial chickens, on the other hand, are given antibiotics on a routine basis. No hormones or other drugs can be used in organic egg production.
Molting—when birds shed their older feathers to make room for new ones—is sometimes induced in commercial egg and chicken production by withholding food, water, or by other means. Molting extends the productive life of laying chickens, but it cannot be induced in chickens laying organic eggs; only natural molting is allowed to occur.
Organic eggs must come from chickens that live in cage-free environments and have access to the outdoors, even if their outdoor area is just a small pen or enclosed yard area. Pens are used to protect the chickens and their eggs from predators like hawks, foxes, racoons, coyotes, and other animals.
Organic Eggs vs. Free-Range Eggs vs. Vegetarian Eggs
Are organic eggs affordable? They're not cheap. Organic eggs can cost up to $4/dozen, roughly double the cost of commercial eggs. This is largely due to the extra expenses involved in meeting organic certification requirements.
Finally, be aware that free-range eggs aren't necessarily the same as organic—the USDA requires that free-range eggs come from chickens that have some access to a small, fenced patch of cement (which they may or may not use). Additionally, free-range chickens might eat non-organic feed and are sometimes given antibiotics or other drugs.
Similarly, sellers of vegetarian eggs, antibiotic-free eggs, or so-called "all-natural eggs" aren't subject to the same scrutiny as organic eggs. Since nobody's really checking, it's up to the manufacturer to set their own standards for what constitutes a vegetarian egg. As always, caveat emptor when buying eggs, since you might or might not get what's advertised.