Find out what the labels on your egg cartons really mean.
As I stroll down the aisle of my local grocery, knocking the items off my shopping list with ease…one item makes me pause…and just stare at my options, befuddled. You might be thinking cheese, or olive oil, or tomato sauce…but in fact, it is eggs. I look at price, at type, at grade and find myself in momentary paralysis. I see hundreds of cartons (some compostable, some styrofoam), a half dozen types, and several grades. I see different sizes, and free-range vs. cage-free vs. whatever.
In my mind, there is a scale with my wallet on one side and my ethics on the other. And it goes back and forth.
Well, I wish I knew the facts about eggs then when I stood there with wide eyes, and a searching brain…facts that, thanks to researching this here article, I know understand pretty well.
So what’s in a label?
Living Situations of the Hens.
Battery farmed eggs. We can start with your store brand eggs, which are your cheapest to the table, but it comes at a price for the poor chickens that lay these eggs. The only way these eggs are so cheap is that the conditions that the chickens are kept in are horrible. Generally, these animals are caged in confined spaces with 3-7 chickens occupying one cage. They’re beaked, so they don’t hurt one another when they freak out due to unremitting claustrophobia and dis-ease. Their cages do not allow for any exercise. In larger production facilities there are between 20,000-100,000 birds kept in an artificially-lit warehouse with no windows. These chickens are fed antibiotics, hormones and other unsavory chemicals that may not be too good for you and I.
I cannot speak hen, but this here sounds like an existence full of suffering. And it’s what you and I eat, almost always, when we’re out at a restaurant enjoying breakfast.
Cage free eggs. According to the Humane Society, cage free hens are allowed to spread their wings, roam around and even lay their eggs in nests. The fact that they’re cage free, however, doesn’t mean that they aren’t awfully crowded, hemmed in a chaotic sea of chickens without ample room to move. This freedom also allows them to peck and scratch, unlike their battery-farmed peers. However, they often live in flocks of thousands and often do not go outside—no sunshine or grass for these birds. Cage free does not mean they are spared the cruel practices that are used on battery farmed hens.
Free-range eggs. In the best of scenarios, free-range eggs are laid by hens that have its flock size controlled, and are housed but never put in cages. They have access to the outdoors and thus have access to vegetation. There’s another side though. When looking at the USDA’s definition of free range, it simply says access to the outdoors. This means that there are no rules or regulations requiring a certain amount of space per hen or that they use the outdoor space. These rules are ripe for abuse, and allow farms to label their eggs free range when they are simply a battery farm without the confining cages. That means it is up to you as the consumer to find out which farmer is full of it, and which is not.
Male chicks. In all above cases, all the male chicks are killed, often just thrown into trash bags and suffocated. Financially-speaking, they’re useless.
Diets of Hens.
Organic eggs. A bit confusing. Organic simply means that they are given a diet made up of only organic ingredients—but the question of caging isn’t addressed. Antibiotics are allowed when there is a sign of infection…but they temporarily lose their organic designation and regain it once the hormones have left the hen’s body.
Vegetarian eggs. These eggs are simply eggs laid by hens that are fed a vegetarian (natural for chickens) diet—meaning no meat or poultry in their feed. Once again, this means nothing regarding their living situation, but in general it seems vegetarian diets go with a more humane housing condition.
One myth that needs to be dispelled is the idea that there is a difference between white and brown-shelled eggs. There is not. It is simply the product of certain breeds of hen, and according to Jeffrey Kluger at Time Magazine, the extra cost of brown eggs comes from the extra feed it takes for that breed to lay an egg.
So, what do we buy?
When researching farms it seems like there can be a mix, thus you can have a cage free egg with an organic diet, organic egg with a vegetarian diet, or a vegetarian free-range egg or any combination of the categories. This means the onus is on the consumer to do their research.
It would be impossible to profile all the farms (or, more accurately, factories). Often the farms are audited by third parties to ensure the veracity of the farms’ claim of the type of egg they are producing. There seem to be auditors that are tougher than others.
Lastly, the grades on the cartons must be broken down. AA is the best, then A then B. B is used in prepared foods in supermarkets and the like. There is hardly a tangible taste difference between the AA and A grade, so this is up to the consumer’s discretion.
Then there’s the Mother Earth News report saying that pastured hen’s eggs are tangibly better for you than the eggs laid by factory-housed hens. Though the above-referenced Time article says that healthier, more active and organically-fed hens’ eggs are not better for us. Counter-intuitive, anyone?
There is a common theme here; and it is very simple. If you are looking to support a quality of life for the animal producing the eggs, then do some research about the company you are buying your eggs from. Just because an egg is designated as free range or cage free doesn’t mean they’re treating their chickens in a humane manner.
There is no substitute for doing your homework, which one can start by checking with your local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) chapter. It may take a little extra time, and you may wind up buying from someone’s backyard chicken coop or the farmers market, and spending a bit more money…but that’s how we back up our beliefs.
One of the easier ways to shop our talk is to simply buy local, that way you can even visit the farm yourself and see if you like the way the hens are being treated.
One of the harder ways is to build or buy your own chicken coop and treat the animals in a humane way, though one must check with local laws and restrictions: hens are not welcome everywhere. If you need some help along the way, check out the Urban Chicken.