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Unraveling Egg Labels

By Kim Robson:

Unless you’re lucky enough to have a friendly neighbor with chickens who’s selling their excess eggs, you’re probably confused by the baffling array of label designations on egg cartons. They include “cage free,” “free range,” “pasture raised,” “certified humane,” “certified organic,” “vegetarian fed” and “Omega-3 enriched,” among others. Let’s sort them all out so you can make the best choice for your family.

These terms are not regulated and have no bearing on animal welfare:

  • Natural
  • Farm fresh
  • Fertile
  • Pasteurized
  • Vegetarian-fed
  • Omega-3 enriched

The first three terms have no fixed meaning at all and are simply marketing buzzwords.

Pasteurizedmeans the eggs have been heated in a water bath to prevent pathogenic microorganisms from spreading salmonella — these are recommended if you’re eating raw or lightly cooked eggs.

Vegetarian fedmeans that the hens were fed a vegetarian diet with no animal products. Without this label, the FDA allows livestock feed to include slaughterhouse by-products, processed litter from the floor of chicken houses, and processed animal feces. Government food labeling agencies do notrequire a “vegetarian fed” claim to be third-party verified through on-farm inspections.

Omega-3means the hens were fed a diet containing flaxseed. When the hens digest the flax, some of the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) gets broken down into docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and both fatty acids transfer to the yolk. One omega-3 egg typically contains 340 milligrams of ALA and 75-100 milligrams of DHA.

These five terms are the only labels that are government regulated and do relate to animal welfare. From worst to best:

  • Cage-free
  • Free-range / Free-roaming
  • Certified organic
  • Pasture-raised
  • Certified humane

Cage-freeis perhaps the most misleading term and is often confused with or considered interchangeable with free-range. Hens are not kept in appalling battery cages that allow only 67 square inches of space per hen, which is slightly larger than a sheet of copy paper. Cage-free birds are able to spread their wings, walk around, preen, and lay their eggs in a nest; but they are still confined inside hot, over-crowded industrial barns and have no access to the outdoors.

Free-range / Free-roamingmeans that hens have access to the outdoors for at least a part of each day. The outdoor ranging area is fenced, but usually offers the space and opportunity for sunlight, fresh air, and running around, unlike fully indoor egg farms. However, there are no specifications as to the quality or duration of that outside exposure.

Certified organicmeans eggs were produced through organic means. According to the USDA, organic laying hens cannot be caged, must have access to the outdoors and cannot be raised in cages. Hens must be fed organic, vegetarian feed, and cannot be dosed with antibiotics. However, birds may be debeaked and starved to induce molting. The amount of outdoor access is not clearly defined, and on many organic farms, birds may have access only to a small concrete yard.

Pasture-raisedmeans hens are allowed to roam free, eating plants and insects (their natural food) along with some commercial feed. This term is being used by sustainable farmers whose hens are raised outdoors. Pasture-raised eggs contain 10% less fat, 34% less cholesterol, 40% more Vitamin A, and 4 times the amount of Omega-3. Pasture-raised chicken meat contains 21% less fat and 50% more Vitamin A than the USDA standard. Pastured-raised eggs are what we imagine when we think of Farmer Bob’s hens.

Certified Humane®is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve animal welfare. This term is widely considered the “gold standard” of farm animal care certification. Laying hens must be uncaged and have access to perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas. Flock density is limited. Beak trimming is allowed but debeaking is not. Starvation to induce molting is not permitted. Pasture-raised eggs are designated as certified humane. I used to get my eggs from a neighbor who went to a great deal of trouble to have his eggs certified humane, which involved an inspector’s coming out to ensure his farm had met all of their qualifications.

The Humane Society made this handy chart to help keep it all straight:

Speaking of “cage-free” eggs, the Animal Legal Defense Fund(ALDF) is suing grocery store Trader Joe’s for deceptive labeling of eggs. The lawsuit argues that the boldly printed words “cage-free” led buyers to believe that their eggs are coming from the idyllic green open-air pasture pictured on the carton. Trader Joe’s has yet to respond to the lawsuit.

Tyler Lobdell, a lawyer with the ALDF, says, “Consumers are more and more concerned about animal welfare every year, and they’re willing to vote with their dollar. When the reality of cage-free is [better understood], it’s going to lose its luster and people are going to demand more.”

Ultimately, the best option is to raise your own eggs or buy eggs from a neighbor who does. You don’t need a noisy rooster for hens to lay eggs, either. The eggs will be infertile and won’t develop into new chicks, so you’ll need to buy new chicks periodically to replace older, unproductive layers. Chickens are easy to care for, and it’s a hoot to watch their hilarious antics and unique personalities. They eat, in addition to chicken feed, vegetable scraps and insects. Chickens are great tick-hunters and will happily eat garden pests like grasshoppers, earwigs, mosquitoes, crickets, beetles, fly larvae, fleas, lawn grubs, aphids, pill bugs, worms, and even more dangerous bugs such as fire ants and scorpions!

About Kim Robson

Kim Robson lives and works with her husband in the Cuyamaca Mountains an hour east of San Diego. She enjoys reading, writing, hiking, cooking, and animals. She has written a blog since 2006 at kimkiminy.wordpress.com. Her interests include the environment, dark skies, astronomy and physics, geology and rock collecting, living simply and cleanly, wilderness and wildlife conservation, and eating locally.

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