Monday, June 11, 2012

Free Range vs Cage Free vs Organic Eggs

An egg is an egg is an egg.... or not...

Marketing at its best once again. Words like 'natural' and 'cage free' are being placed on egg cartons with Zen like images making you believe the eggs you are buying are from hens who live a life of desperate housewives luxury.

If the eggs you buy do not have a label indicating otherwise, they are most likely eggs produced in a conventional farming environment. The USDA's recommendation for factory egg production is to give the hen approximately 4 inches of feeding space, hens are commonly packed four to a cage measuring just 16 inches wide. This does not leave the hen any room to spread her wings, stretch her legs, or participate in any natural behaviors. Illness is often wide spread and casualties are common.

Lets decode what marketing labels on an egg carton actually mean:

  • Natural
    According to the FDA the word 'natural' means nothing at all.
    Natural means nothing. Please make no assumptions what-so-ever when you see the word.

  • Cage Free
    The marketing term 'Cage Free' means the hens are not restricted by a cage, but are usually kept indoors in a hen house or other large facility. They are generally allowed to roam freely and have free access to food and water. This is obviously better than the conventional method, however, hens are still often fighting for space of their own and don't necessarily gain any access to pasture or sun.

  •  Free Range or Free Roaming
    This is another term that is not regulated by the USDA. This generally indicates the hen is cage free and has some access to the outdoors. There are no specifications to the quality or size of the outside range, it could quite literally be a small door to a 2' x 2' space that is not even used.

  •  Certified Organic
    This is a regulated term. The hens are un-caged and required to have outdoor access, but again the amount of time or quality of outdoor access is not defined. The feed must be certified organic free of antibiotics, pesticides, and animal bi-products.
    Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are still permitted.

  • United Egg Producers Certified
    This is a laughable certification. All common cruel factory practices are allowed including the recommended 67 inches of space per hen (less than a sheet of paper).

  •  Animal Welfare Approved: I underline the word Welfare because there are other similarly named certifications, Welfare is a key term. This is the highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program. Hens are cage-free with continuous outdoor access. Perching access and the ability to perform natural behaviors such as dust bathing are required. Requirements are set for space and nesting boxes. Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the Animal Welfare Institute.

  • Vegetarian-Fed: This is an interesting term to me because I know my chickens get a lot of protein and nutrients from the bugs and grubs they find in pasture. This label indicates that the birds' feed does not contain animal byproducts, which does not directly say anything about the condition of the living conditions. 

  • Food Alliance Certified: A third party certification that requires the hens live cage-free with access to outdoors or natural daylight. Natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing must be able to be performed. Requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes are also defined. Starvation-based molting is prohibited but beak cutting is still allowed. Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance.

The Humane Society is a great source of information when it comes to regulations with factory farming and the truth in labels.