You are what you eat – Eggs

The eggs these hens produce are legally labeled ‘cage free’. Is this the image that pops into your head when you look at egg cartons in the store?

Or is something like this what you think you’re paying premium prices for? Happy chickens scratching around a run or barnyard with room to engage in natural chicken activities….

What do all those marketing slogans mean anyway? Turns out, not much in terms of happy chickens. Animal welfare claims on egg cartons are currently unregulated in the United States, enabling producers to use phrases such as “animal-friendly” or “naturally-raised” even if those eggs come from birds confined inside tiny wire cages. Here are some definitions to clear things up a bit:

Cage Free: The label “cage free” does not mean there are any standards or auditing mechanisms behind it. As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage free” are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in some of their natural behaviors such as walking and nesting. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

Certified Humane: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Debeaking is allowed, but forced molting through starvation is prohibited. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

Certified Organic: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access (although there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing birds meaningful access to the outdoors). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Naitional Organic Program. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.

Free Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free range” for some poultry products, there are no standards in “free range” egg production. Typically, free range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have outdoor access. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. However, there is no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

Free Roaming: Also known as “free range,” the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in “free roaming” egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage free. There is no third-party auditing.

Natural: This label has no relevance to animal welfare.

Omega-3 Enriched: This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

United Egg Producers Certified [note: this was formerly called “Animal Care Certified”]: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. By 2008, hens laying these eggs will be afforded 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even fully stretching their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.

Vegetarian-Fed: These birds are provided a more natural feed than that received by most laying hens, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.

You can see that all these labels still allow producers to treat chickens rather cruelly. Even the “Certified Humane” designation permits debeaking. The next time you head to the grocery store for a dozen eggs, why not reconsider buying into a system that charges you extra for a ‘happy’ label while continuing to mistreat animals? Take some time to look for local egg producers and tour their farms. Our county puts out an annual Farm Map which has 11 farms selling eggs direct to the public. Maybe your county has something similar. Or try asking around at your local Farmer’s Market for egg producers. We can find farm fresh eggs, laid by hens kept the old-fashioned way, for $2.50-$3 a dozen. Not only are the hens kept in better conditions, but we’re helping keep food production local and in the hands of real farmers instead of agribusiness. Not to mention eggs from barnyard hens taste so much better than any you can buy from the store!

Want more info? Check out these sites for an in-depth look at egg production – Egg Industry and Circle of Responsibility, and an editorial about one man’s search for humanely-produced eggs.

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3 thoughts on “You are what you eat – Eggs”

  1. Thanks for this information. I had wandered away from my commitment to not buy eggs from farmers or producers who mistreat their hens. I had forgotten what I had been told long ago about this situation. You reaffirm my commitment to buying local eggs.

  2. It’s easy to forget that living beings are feeding us. I always scan the local grocery ads and cringe at the cheap meat. I try to visualize how those animals live and die cheaply enough that we think they’re a bargain and the agribiz owners still make a profit. Meat (and any animal product) should be considered a treat and a gift, and we should pay accordingly or get our protein & dairy from plant sources. 8:45 PM

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