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….
In 2011, United Egg Producers forged an unlikely partnership with The Humane Society of the United States in an effort to push a uniform, national cage production standard for the U.S. egg industry. In return, HSUS agreed to drop state-level poultry welfare efforts. Even though the proposed changes were to be phased in slowly (18 years to change the cage-free space from 67 square inches to 124 per hen), agri-giants of all livestock industries had a major freak-out. The fear was that this approach would open up the door for animal welfare guidelines be imposed at the national level for other species. So the “Egg Bill” was dropped, and “Even though the federal bill is all but dead, HSUS will not be reviving any of its anti-cage ballot measures as they previously claimed. Nor will HSUS seek to have enforced any ‘cage-free’ measure already passed,” said Bradley Miller, national director of the Humane Farming Association (HFA).
Industry lobbying group, Protect the Harvest, frames this as a victory, blocking the Humane Society’s “efforts to increase egg production costs, which would have forced farmers out of business, and left American families with what would have amounted to a hidden food tax.” I guess they missed that whole animal welfare part of the proposed standards. They are now working to prevent the state of California from enacting Proposition 2, which would prohibit “the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs”. These standards would also apply to any eggs sold in California, no matter where they were laid. The law is set to go into full effect on January 1, 2015.
So many choices to make about what we eat, and how the animals we use for food are treated…. Education is a good place to start, especially when money is tight and the grocery bill takes bigger bites out of the paycheck with every shopping trip.
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. You might be paying top dollar for eggs that don’t deliver on the happy chicken egg carton imagery. Here are some brief definitions from The Humane Society* to clear things up a bit:
The birds are uncaged inside barns, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. De-beaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
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 hens are uncaged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
The birds are uncaged inside barns 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. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.
Animal Welfare Approved
The highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program. The birds are cage-free and continuous outdoor perching access is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Birds must be allowed to molt naturally. Beak cutting is prohibited. Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the Animal Welfare Institute.
American Humane Certified
This label allows both cage confinement and cage-free systems. Each animal who is confined in these so-called “furnished cages” has about the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper. An abundance of scientific evidence demonstrates that these cages are detrimental to animal welfare, and they are opposed by nearly every major US and EU animal welfare group. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. American Humane Certified is a program of American Humane Association.
As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
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.
Food Alliance Certified
The birds are cage-free and access to outdoors or natural daylight is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Starvation-based molting is prohibited. Beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance.
United Egg Producers Certified
The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. Hens laying these eggs have 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren battery cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited (rations and lighting are altered to induce weight loss and reproductive tract regression), but beak cutting is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.
These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.
This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.
This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
*Virtually all hens in commercial egg operations—whether cage or cage-free—come from hatcheries that kill all male chicks shortly after hatching. The males are of no use to the egg industry because they don’t lay eggs and aren’t bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry. Common methods of killing male chicks include suffocation, gassing and grinding. Hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed at hatcheries each year in the United States.
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 lists farms selling eggs directly to the public. Maybe your county has something similar. Or try asking around at your local Farmer’s Market for egg producers. Many backyard/urban flocksters sell eggs via Craigslist. 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 Egg Industry for an in-depth look at egg production and this editorial about one man’s search for humanely-produced eggs.