Ask Eartha: Egg labels can be confusing for conscious consumers
I try to buy healthy eggs for my family, but I get overwhelmed looking at the egg choices at Whole Foods. Organic, free-range, cage-free … Can you help me figure out which is the most important and why?
— Teri, Breckenridge
I feel your pain, Teri. Trying to buy the best eggs can be overwhelming, as well as a little tough on the pocketbook. There are a number of labels relating to the chickens’ living conditions, what they are fed and how the animals are treated. With the exception of the USDA Organic certification, none of the other labels — including cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised — are regulated by the government. Fortunately, there are several third-party certifications that verify conditions at chicken farms. Let’s start by defining a few key claims you’ll see on egg cartons. Since there are no government regulations, these definitions are general and may vary.
Cage-free: While “cage-free” conjures up free range chickens in a pasture, reality is significantly different. This label only means that chickens are not in cages. Cage-free chickens generally don’t have access to the outdoors. Chickens can engage in some of their natural behaviors including walking and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is typically permissible, and sometimes molting through starvation is allowed.
Free-range: Although the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, there are no government standards for eggs. Typically, free-range hens live inside barns with no cages and have some outdoor access. However, outdoor access is often severely limited and the outdoors need not contain any vegetation. This claim is only a small step up from cage-free and many inhumane practices still persist.
Pasture-raised: This is the ideal life for laying hens. However, not all pastures are created equally. Typically, pasture-raised hens live outdoors for most of the year on true pastures filled with living vegetation. Hens may engage in many natural behaviors such as dust-bathing and foraging. Because there is no regulation, the amount of space per bird, quality of the pasture, type of feed, and animal treatment varies significantly among pasture-raised chickens.
USDA Organic: As already mentioned, this label is regulated by the government. However, this certification only relates to what the chickens are fed and has little bearing on the hens’ living conditions. These chickens are fed only certified-organic feed, which is grown without artificial fertilizers and pesticides. The hens are also not given hormones or antibiotics, and they have “reasonable access” to the outdoors. These hens often eat imported feed from China, which costs twice as much as conventional feed and contributes to the high cost of organic eggs. The U.S. ships conventional soybeans all over the world to feed animals, but there are not enough organic corn and soybeans produced in the U.S. for animal feed.
The key to selecting the best eggs includes considering the above labels in combination with a third-party certification. There are several certifications related to animal treatment, and Certified Humane seems to be the most common. The Certified Humane certification has specific criteria for cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised. Cage-free birds must have at least 1.8 square feet of living space and be able to engage in natural behaviors. Free-range hens must be given outdoor access for at least six hours a day, but no living vegetation is required. Pasture-raised chickens must be placed on a true pasture for at least six hours a day, 12 months a year, with at least 108 square feet per bird. If you truly want healthy eggs from happy hens, you should be looking for eggs that are USDA organic and Certified Humane pasture-raised. These eggs cost between $6 and $8 per carton at local Natural Grocers and Whole Foods.
Of course, the best option may be to get a chicken or two if it’s allowable where you live or find someone locally who has egg-laying hens. For more information on local regulations surrounding backyard chickens, please call the High Country Conservation Center at 970-668-5703.
Ask Eartha Steward is written by the staff at the High Country Conservation Center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Submit questions to Eartha at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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