Eggs are a staple in many of our refrigerators. They provide a complete, easily available protein source (you can buy eggs just about anywhere these days – even your local gas station), at a cost that most health-conscious families consider to be reasonable and affordable. But “cheap” eggs are not really cheap when you factor in all of the hidden costs to the environment, animal welfare, society and your health. In addition, reading and interpreting the claims made on an egg carton is a confusing and complex task. Labels like “vegetarian fed”, “all natural” and “cage-free” may sound healthier, but often these stamps are worth less than the ink with which they’re printed.
THE HIDDEN COST OF CHEAP EGGS
The unfortunate truth is that buying eggs is confusing on purpose. The factory farming system (which produces a full 95% of eggs sold in the U.S.) wants you to think its chickens are raised in a humane and healthy fashion. None of that is true. The health of the animals you eat has a direct and powerful impact on your health… and factory farmed chickens are not healthy, happy animals.
- In a typical factory farming system (see “United Egg Producers Certified” below), hens have 67 square inches of cage space per bird. This is less area than a sheet of paper. (Imagine living your whole life confined to an area the size of a stand-up shower.) The hens are confined in restrictive, barren battery cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including spreading their wings.
- 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.
- There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed. Which means their diets include not only soy, grains and corn, but tons (literally) of post-slaughter animal waste products like meat and bone meal, rendered chicken carcasses, rendered feathers, hair, and skin (often under catch-all categories like “animal protein products”), manure and other animal waste, and plastics. These are facts, not hyperbole.
- They are also routinely given antibiotics (a must, given their slum-like, unsanitary living conditions), which leads to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, ever-increasing salmonella outbreaks and recalls, and cross-contamination of these bacteria with humans. Hens are also fed other dietary additives (including arsenic) to prevent disease.
- As hens living in such cramped conditions exhibit stress-induced aggression, panic and fear responses, beak cutting (without anesthesia) is not only permitted, but the rule rather than the exception. In addition, forced molting through starvation (so the hens produce more eggs) is also a permitted and common practice. These same inhumane practices, if applied to the treatment of dogs, would be considered illegal and punishable by law.
Lest you think we’ve pulled one or two egregious farms out of the mix and are holding them up as a worst-case example, please read a bit about the poultry farming industry from Farm Sanctuary, one of the leading animal welfare institutes in the country. And if you don’t trust some fringe-y group you’ve never heard of, how about the Humane Society? The stark reality is that there are no worst-case examples, as every factory farm is run exactly the same.
The below egg carton label information comes primarily from the Humane Society web site, as updated in October 2010.
EGG CARTON LABELS: THESE TERMS ARE MORE OR LESS MEANINGLESS
While these labels sound healthy, on their own, they hold zero value in evaluating the health or treatment of the hens, or their eggs. These are labels straight from the factory farming system, designed simply to confuse health-conscious consumers.
- Natural: Meaningless. According to the USDA, the “natural” label can be placed on a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed. This label in no way refers to the way an animal was raised, nor the feed, antibiotics or additives it was given. Animals raised in the factory farming system can by all rights still carry the label “natural.” Do any of those practices described above sound at all natural to you?
- No Added Hormones: Indicates that the animals were raised without added growth hormones. Sounds good, right? But by U.S. law, poultry cannot be given any hormones. Which means the use of this label on your eggs is totally misleading. We told you, these labels are sneaky.
- Omega-3 Enriched: This label alone has no relevance to the animal’s welfare, living conditions or health. Hens fed flax (which translates to a tiny bit of added Omega-3 in their eggs) may still be subjected to the same factory farming conditions and diet as the rest of the non-flax fed hens.
- Vegetarian-Fed: These birds’ feed does not contain animal waste products… but that’s about it. They still may come from the factory farming system, which means this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions, welfare or health.
- United Egg Producers Certified: Perhaps the worst of the bunch, this voluntary program permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. These are the exact “factory farming” conditions we speak of above, although their “certification program” might lead you to believe otherwise. In addition, they’ll tell you that compliance is verified through third-party auditing. (Compliance to what? Cruel and inhumane practices?)
EGG CARTON LABELS: BETTER, BUT NOT AS GOOD AS YOU MIGHT THINK
These labels mean something in terms of animal health, living conditions and/or welfare… but certainly not all three at the same time. Which means your “organic” eggs are still living in cramped, disease-ridden conditions, and your “cage-free” hens are still fed animal waste products. Buyer beware.
- Cage-Free: Note, there is no legal definition for this term. Hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are un-caged and generally have a bit more space than battery-caged hens. But they’re still crammed inside barns or warehouses, are unable to exhibit their normal, natural behaviors, and generally are without anyaccess to the outdoors. Beak cutting is permitted, and the term “cage-free” says nothing of the hens’ diets, or whether they are given antibiotics or other additives. In addition, there is no third-party auditing of this system.
- Free-Range or Free-Roaming: The USDA has defined no “free-range” standards, and allows egg producers to freely label any egg as such. Typically, free-range hens are un-caged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access. (However, we’ve already mentioned what that “outdoor access” could mean.) As Jonathan Safran Foer says in Eating Animals, “I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.”In addition, this label alone means there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed (antibiotics, animal waste products, additives, etc.), and beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing of this system.
- Certified Organic: The birds are un-caged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access. However, that “outdoor access” could mean a tiny door on one side of the barn, which opens to a “yard” big enough to hold only 3% of the hens living in the enclosed structure at any given time, which may or may not ever be open. (It certainly doesn’t mean that your organic hens ever spend any time actually outside.) In addition, the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are also permitted.The good news? They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of animal by-products, antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. These animals’ organic foods also cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge, cannot be genetically modified, and cannot be irradiated. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
EGG CARTON LABELS: YOUR BEST CHOICES
These certifications actually mean something, either on their own or in conjunction with another (meaningful) label like “certified organic”. Look for these labels at your local health food store, Whole Foods or other independent food co-ops, as you’re not likely to find these at a normal grocery store.
- Certified Humane: Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care. The birds are un-caged inside barns or warehouses, but may or may not spend time outside in their natural habitat. (Refer to the specific farm and product to determine whether their birds are outdoors – “pastured” – or not.) 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, however minor beak cutting is still allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
- Food Alliance Certified: Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance. 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, but minor beak cutting is still allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
The following labels hold no legal definition, but are used by farmers to indicate their eggs were produced in a manner healthy for the environment, their chickens and you. Don’t immediately dismiss them just because they aren’t regulated, but don’t take their claims at face value either. Do some research to find out whether the eggs in your cart meet your standards of healthy, humanely raised animal products.
- Pastured: While there is no legal definition for the term “pastured”, it refers to chickens allowed to roam in open pastures. They don’t just have “access to the outdoors” – they actually are outdoors for a good portion of their lives. Advocates of pastured eggs believe that the chickens are happier and healthier, and nutritional analysis has shown that pastured eggs are also richer in useful nutritious elements like omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin C. Usually used in conjunction with “organic”, indicating that the hens are fed an organic diet, and aren’t given antibiotics or exposed to synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. These two elements combined (“pastured” + “organic”) are a “best choice”.
- Happy Hens: We’ve seen this claim on more than one egg carton, and when it’s used in conjunction with other terms like “certified organic” and “pastured”, we’re more likely to believe the claims. We’ll also do our research, however, calling the farm or checking out their web site to learn more about the manner in which their hens are raised and fed. (Check out this description of the “dream life” of hens living at Soul Food Farms in Vacaville, CA. We’d buy their eggs, despite the fact that “dream life” isn’t a legally defined term.)
- Ethically Raised: Again, not a legally defined term, but indicates that the producers are thinking about the health and happiness of their animals. Do your research, as above.
NO LABELS? SOMETIMES, THAT’S A GOOD THING.
Finally, don’t immediately dismiss your local farmer’s market offerings just because they don’t have fancy (and often expensive) certifications on their homemade egg cartons! If you can find a local farm with healthy, happy, naturally fed chickens being raised in a humane and ethically defensible way, those eggs would earn our top marks. Call the farm, or even better, stop by and visit! A farmer truly concerned for his animals and his consumers will be more than happy to give you the tour and allow you to see where you food comes from. (Try that with a factory farm.)
In closing, happy, healthy chickens = a healthier egg, which leads to a healthier YOU! Don’t let the confusing factory farming system trick you into supporting something you’re not in favor of. Vote with your dollar, and support those egg producers who truly care about the environment, animal welfare and your health.