There are a dizzying array of egg carton labels in the supermarket these days: cage-free, organic, vegetarian, all-natural, antibiotic-free, free range and more. Are “Cage Free” eggs better? What do all these labels actually mean? Can you trust them? And is there such a thing as a truly humanely produced egg?
No Legal Definition for Most Egg Labels
With the exception of the term “organic”, there is no legal definition of any of the terms I listed above: not “cage-free”, not “natural”, not “free-range”. This means that each producer can call their eggs pretty much whatever they like without it really meaning anything at all. Let’s go over each label and find out what it REALLY means:
Free-Range: When you’re buying eggs labelled “free-range”, you’re probably imagining that the hens are allowed to roam about outside, frolicking in some verdant green field, pecking away for worms…ranging free, right? Nope. There is no legally specified amount of time that so-called “free range” hens must spend outside to earn that label, so many of these hens actually spend the majority of their lives cramped into dark, smelly aviaries, with minimal time outside. There are most certainly small doors leading to the outdoors, but the outdoors is often just a bit of dirt or concrete, and most of the birds rarely make it outside. In addition, because of the horrific ammonia smell in the aviaries, there are very strong fans set up near these doors to suck out the smell, making the birds unlikely to venture near for fear of getting blown away.
Farm-Fresh: this actually means…nothing. Nothing at all. There is likely no “farm” as you envision it, and the label is designed solely to trick the consumer into a vision of a bucolic Old McDonald’s farm which hasn’t existed for decades.
All-Natural: like the term farm-fresh, this label means absolutely nothing. Even worse, it can be used on eggs produced by battery hens. Battery hens are hens that are raised in so-called battery cages: tiny, stacked cages where birds above poop on birds below, where hens’ feet grow over the wires of the cages so they cannot move, where hens are pecked to death and featherless and often left inside the cages when they die. How do I know this to be true? When I was younger, I participated in a so-called “action”, visiting and filming battery hens in the dead of night for an animal organization. What I saw haunts me to this day: piles of dead carcasses in the corners of the aviary, birds terrified and without feathers, birds with their feet stuck permanently in the mesh floors of the cages, with feces all over their bodies from the hens caged above them. It was horrifying.
Cage-Free: In the case of “cage-free”, it is true–hens are not confined to cages per say. They can spread their wings and walk about a bit. But they are still confined to incredibly cramped, dusty, smelly aviaries with minimal if any outdoor access. They often are allotted less than one square feet each. For those of you who remember vinyl records, think of each hen being allotted the equivalent of one “record” worth of space in which to live. And because of the crowding, pecking and aggression between the hens is common, leading to sores, bleeding and misery.
Hormone Free or Antibiotic Free: This is one of the more inane labels you see on eggs. Why? Because egg-laying hens are not allowed to be given antibiotics or hormones, ever. It’s illegal. Egg producers are trying to win points for something they’re legally not allowed to do anyway. (On the other hand, chickens raised for meat are administered antibiotics and other chemicals, so when those are labelled antibiotic-free, it means something.
Vegetarian Fed: Again, another stupid label. Chickens are not naturally vegetarians, so why would you want to feed them only vegetarian feed? Pasture-raised chickens love bugs and worms, and do best when they eat them. I suspect what the egg producers are hoping you think is that they’re not feeding their hens…other chickens…or other dead farm animals. And they’re trying to cash in on the healthy sound of “vegetarian”. We don’t WANT our hens to be vegetarian, actually. We want them to eat what they would eat if allowed to roam free–which is not vegetarian.
Organic: This is the only label that the government recognizes. But what does it mean? Is it the “best” type of egg to buy? No. Why? Because while these chickens are not allowed to be fed antibiotics (well, nor are any hens), and they must be fed non-synthetic organic feed, they need only be CAGE-free, not pasture–raised. Remember from above that cage-free does not mean what you might think it means–hens are raised in a large enclosed aviary with a few tiny doors with access to dirt or concrete, which is rarely accessed. They are not running around a green field, clucking with pleasure as they dig in the dirt for bugs. They are still caged–it’s just a larger cage, namely, an enclosed, filty, ammonia-smelling warehouse.
Pasture-Raised: This is the considered by most to be the best label, the gold standard. In general, it means the chickens run around outside, dig in the dirt, eat bugs and nest in trees. They have room to escape if another hen is bothering them, thus drastically reducing the incidence of pecking injuries. Their feed, however, need not be organic. And the pastures can differ in size and access to foliage and edibles.
So…Organic and Pasture-Raised is your Best Bet
Those eggs labeled both organic AND “pasture-raised” are generally going to be your best bet. The term pasture-raised is what most of us think of when we think of “free range” chickens. The majority of these hens live their lives roaming about outside, foraging for seeds, worms, bugs and greens. Now, obtaining organic labeling is cost prohibitive for many small farmers, so if you can find a local farmer who raises his hens on a pasture and allows them to feed naturally and without antibiotics, I would personally go for that. Get to know the farmer, how she treats her hens. Even if she can’t afford the organic label, you can talk with her about the hens’ diet and treatment, and that might be the best choice of all.
You can often obtain these eggs at farmer’s markets as well. Again, talk to the farmer. Ask questions like “Do your hens spend their days outside?” “Do they forage freely?” “What if any commercial feeds to you feed them?” “Do you medicate them?” “Are they fed corn or soy?”
Check Out Your Eggs with this Database
If you’d like to check out your most recent purchase of eggs to see if it meets the gold standards of humane production, visit Cornucopia’s Organic Egg Scorecard. Look up your egg producer, or find one in your state that has a “5” or “4” egg rating. Don’t be swayed by sweet images of chickens running around a red barn on the label of your eggs. Educate yourself, and don’t let companies trick you.
A Final Note: Where do all the males go?
The dark secret of eggs is that all the chicks are “sexed” at birth. Males are immediately ground up and turned into animal food. There is no use for male chicks because, obviously, they can’t produce eggs. And they’re not “meaty” enough to be raised as eating chickens. So while some may consider eggs more humane than meat, keep in mind that you are still contributing, albeit indirectly, to the slaughter of chickens when you eat eggs.
Whether or not you feel comfortable eating eggs is a decision you have to make for yourself. I would argue, however, that if you are trying to eat “ethically”, consuming any eggs other than pasture-raised is on par with eating factory-farmed meat. Battery hens, and even “cage free” hens, live miserable and tortured lives.
A Personal Note: I kept hens for a few years. They ran around our property (including in our house!) and had amazingly unique personalities. They were not “bird brains”. They were special, sweet, and very affectionate. So please don’t minimize the suffering of these animals because they’re “just dumb birds”.
Use your wallet to send the message to commercial egg producers that you will only buy pasture-raised eggs.