In an effort to make it to the top of the pecking order in the food isle, egg producers are labeling their products in a way to become more “transparent” to the consumer. After all, who doesn’t feel better about purchasing eggs from farms that treat their animals well? Egg cartons seem to be “upping” their game with labels like “Cage Free”, “Free Range”, and “Pastured”. Pictures of chickens roaming free in lush, green fields are displayed on the front, making you feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. Even though crafty labeling makes us feel good about our purchase, there is a dark truth that may lie beneath the surface. It’s easy to get confused and overwhelmed by labels used in the animal product industry, and it doesn’t just stop at eggs. Labels like, “Natural”, “Grass Fed”, “Raised Without Antibiotics”, and “Nitrite Free”, only make it worse. Here are the true definitions of what the egg industry is really claiming.
In terms of humanely raised chickens, cage free is at the bottom of the list, just slightly above battery cages where the majority of egg-laying hens are kept. A battery cage is, on average, smaller than a sheet of letter-sized paper (1). In order to meet demands, lights may be kept on indoors to reduce melatonin activity in birds, which encourages constant egg production. While this is certainly difficult to grasp, removing the cages isn’t necessarily a large leap in progress. Cage free hens are able to participate in natural behavior such as walking, spreading their wings, and nesting, removing some of the stress and frustration from being confined to a battery cage. Although, they still lead a life of confinement in metal barns with poor living conditions and inhumane treatment (1).
Moving up on the list, the USDA states, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside” in order to label a product “Free Range” (2). However, there is no definition for “outside access”. Outside access could mean a large, open door to a farm field, or it could mean a small opening that leads to a rocky cliff. It may even mean a “pop hole” with no full-body access, or access to the outdoors in some way for just a few minutes a day (3). Hens may be far too frightened to venture outside on their own and choose to stay inside because they were raised indoors. Unfortunately, these definitions are vague and don’t hold farmers to any accountability.
Although there is no legal definition for the term, pastured chickens are free to roam outside and are presented with a buffet of grass, bugs, and worms (4). They have the freedom to spend their time outdoors and resembles the lives of chickens raised on a true farm. In addition, one study found that the eggs of pastured hens contained twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fatty acids as caged hens (5). Have you ever cracked open a pastured egg and a caged egg side by side? Even the difference in appearance is evident, one rich in color and solid in structure, the other pale and soft. Pastured eggs are certainly top of the list, right under buying eggs from your neighbor who has chickens wondering around their yard.
As labels continue to constantly change, purchasing food becomes more difficult. Third party companies such as Certified Humane have stepped in to help, offering clear definitions to make our job easier. For example, while the USDA defines “Free Range” as having “outdoor access”, Certified Humane products require 2 square feet per bird and the hens must be outdoors for at least 6 hours per day (weather permitting). They also require “Pasture Raised” birds to have 108 square feet of pasture per bird with year-round outdoor access and housing to protect themselves (3). Doesn’t that sound like what you had in mind originally? Now it’s up to you to become your own personal nutrition detective.
- Cage-Free vs. Battery-Cage Eggs. The Humane Society. http://m.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/cage-free_vs_battery-cage.html. Accessed November 16, 2017.
- Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms. United States Department of Agriculture. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsis/topics/food-safety-education/get-answers/food-safety-fact-sheets/food-labeling/meat-and-poultry-labeling-terms/meat-and-poultry-labeling-terms. Accessed November 16, 2017.
- “Free Range” and “Pasture Raised” officially defined by HFAC for Certified Humane label. Certified Humane. Published January 16, 2014. Accessed November 16, 2017.
- Weil A. Are “Pastured” Eggs Better? Dr Weil. https://www.drweil.com/diet-nutrition/food-safety/are-pastured-eggs-better/. Published November 5, 2015. Accessed November 16, 2017.
- Karsten H, Patterson P, Stout R, Crews G. Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens.Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems. 2010;25(01):45-54. doi:10.1017/s1742170509990214.