After seeing photos of horribly abused chickens missing beaks and feathers crammed in tiny little cages laying eggs, I decided I’d never buy another factory-farmed egg. The next time I was in the store, I was relieved to find “cage-free” eggs just slightly more expensive than the standard battery-caged eggs. With a sigh of relief, I decided if I needed to supplement the eggs my chickens lay, I could buy those eggs with a good conscience. It felt great to ‘do my part’ to end animal suffering.
But looking around I realized there were a lot of labels being boldly stamped on egg cartons these days— cage-free, free-range, organic, vegetarian, pastured-raised, and those boasting high levels of omega-3. It all seemed pretty confusing. What do all those labels mean?
Just last week, I went to a chicken lecture by a Ph.D. who consults with people who have chicken questions. This guy is very ‘chicken savvy’ and knows a lot about the poultry business as well. In passing he mentioned that ‘free-range’ eggs aren’t from chickens that are running around outside, living a carefree happy life. It means they’re not locked in a cage like battery chickens (who live in a tiny cage with other hens in a space with personal space about the size of a standard sheet of computer paper). It does mean that they have access to outside, whether that outside is a tiny cement pad or a fully carpeted pasture. But mostly, it means they’re still inside.
That lecture made me realize I needed to find out about the chicken egg labeling standards. I wanted to know what all that labeling meant for my choices as a consumer. Right off the bat, I was surprised to find that the US Department of Agriculture pretty much has no standards in this area, largely leaving it open for self-regulation (the exception to this is using the word ‘organic’. Otherwise anyone can use any label they want on their egg packaging).
Keeping in mind that what you read on an egg carton might not be what you get, here are some clarifying definitions to help you navigate your way through the egg section of the grocery store:
Cage-Free Eggs: Hens aren’t forced to live in cages, instead they live in big barn or warehouse type spaces. While this is a step up from the battery cages, many of the same practices are still used (such as starving a hen at the end of her egg laying capacity to force her to molt so she’ll have one more round of egg laying before she’s disposed of, and debeaking the hens by chopping off part of their beak—and often tongue—without pain killers, to keep them from pecking at each other).
Free-Range Eggs: By definition, free-range hens are required to have access to the great outdoors. Although it seems like another small step in the right direction, it’s not much different from their cage-free cousins because of technicalities. For example, there might be a tiny door somewhere in the hen-house that will allow the hens outside to a small-enclosed dirt patch or concrete pad, but the access is limited and the hens don’t use it very often (or ever) because of how their living arrangements are set up. Also, forced molting and debeaking can be practiced.
Humanely Raised Eggs: This definition goes as far as stating that each hen must be allowed 1.5 square feet of room. Also, the hen-house doors must be large enough to allow more than one chicken at a time through it’s opening. They don’t practice forced molting, but are still allowed to debeak.
Pastured or Pastured-Raised Eggs: This generally means the hens are raised on an organic diet with no antibiotics. They eat a variety of food because they’re most often raised in a moveable pen so they have access to plants and insects.
Organic Eggs: The only thing that is a for-sure with organic eggs is the hens have been raised on organic feed and they haven’t been given antibiotics. There are no mandatory guidelines for how the chicken is raised or housed.
Vegetarian Fed Eggs: The hens that laid the eggs have been fed a vegetarian feed with no animal protein in it. Again, there are no stipulations made for how the hens are treated or housed, just simply that they eat vegetarian food (chickens, however, are not vegetarians by nature, in case you’re wondering).
Omega-3 Eggs: All chicken eggs contain omega-3, but eggs claiming this label are essentially telling you that they’ve got added flax-seed, linseed or other supplements added to their diets which will boost the omega-3 levels in the eggs. (Again, since nobody is regulating this, how much of these seeds or supplements are being fed to the chickens, and how much higher the levels of omega-3’s in the eggs are in question).
All this information is a bit overwhelming and disheartening, if you ask me. Since I’ve become a chicken owner, I can’t imagine subjecting my girls to crowded conditions, forced molting or debeaking.
Are there any ‘safe eggs’ out there? Well, yes. I have some happy, full-beaked, spoiled chickens. They have daily recess time, eat fresh fruits and vegetables, have a spacious hen-house (it’s even insulated) and chicken run. They dig up worms, chase butterflies and live a very contented life. In return, they each give me several eggs per week.
And I’m not alone. The backyard flock movement is growing all over the world. More and more cities are allowing chickens and more and more people are learning the joys of chicken keeping. (And I’ve yet to talk to a city chicken farmer that isn’t totally in love with their girls!)
Today I can’t make sweeping changes in the egg production industry, but I can be more educated about egg carton labeling while making informed purchases. And I can be extra thankful that I live in a city that allows chickens and that I have a thriving, healthy flock to call my own.
If you don’t already have chickens, it’s not too late to leap into the chicken-keeping scene. As a matter of fact, now is a perfect time to get started. If you’d like more information about how to raise chickens (and guilt-free eggs), check out the chicken section at the City Girl Farming website.