What’s in a name?

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So, you go to the grocery store to buy a dozen eggs, thinking, how hard can this be? Eggs are collected from chickens, packed into cartons, taken to stores and then we buy them and eat them. What’s the big deal? Then you see all of the different labels and you start to wonder…what do they mean? How do you know which one to buy? It turns out that the labels are both informative, and misleading. Here’s an overview.

If the carton just says “EGGS,” and you didn’t buy them from a local farmer, most likely the eggs were hatched in a large-scale, industrial setting from hens kept in very small cages called “Battery Cages.”  These metal cages, lined up in rows, are about 8 square inches (smaller than a regular sheet of paper), allowing no room for the hen to move around, get outdoors, see natural light or engage in normal behavior. Thousands and thousands of chickens are packed into these industrial complexes and subjected to some strange procedures. It’s a rough life.

If the label says “CAGE FREE,” you might, naturally, presume that the chickens are outside wandering around, scratching in the dust having a nice time. Not so. This appealing title usually means that these chickens, while not in individual cages, are housed in large, crowded barns with little or no outside access. Each bird may have 1-2 square feet available. They can walk around, stretch their wings, and enjoy a little more natural behavior, but they may never see the outdoors. They may have part of their beak removed to prevent some of the fighting that stems from overcrowding, and they might be subjected to something called “forced molting,” where the chicken is intentionally starved for a period of time to make it produce more eggs.

02ORGANIC eggs are similar to “cage free.” The chickens have “access to outdoor areas,” which could, in fact, be very limited, are fed a better diet, and the farming practices are verified by a third party, so the label might be less misleading. The chickens may have their beaks trimmed, though, which is a common practice in the poultry industry.

PASTURE RAISED eggs are closer to the ideal of chickens living a good life, able to roam and forage somewhat naturally, roosting in protected hen houses, fed a good diet, not subjected to wrongful treatment. However, these standards are not fully regulated. If you want to be sure that these standards have been maintained, look for a “pasture raised” brand that has been “certified organic.”

Just to add a little twist, note that “PASTEURIZED” eggs, does not refer to their lifestyle, but means the eggs have been treated to eliminate salmonella bacteria so that they may be eaten raw. It’s like milk being “pasteurized” for human consumption to prevent illness.

A label proclaiming “NO HORMONES,” is a clever, feel-good tactic aimed at increasingly conscientious consumers who want fewer chemicals in their food. Most consumers do not know that chickens don’t get hormones anyway. While this practice is common in other types of animal husbandry, it is against the law to give hormones to egg laying chickens.

The same holds for “NO ANTIBIOTICS.” Antibiotics are rarely given to egg laying chickens. The label is essentially manipulative — placed to give consumers some sense that they are buying a better product.

Sometimes we see the designation “VEGETARIAN” fed. “No animal products used.” This is a curious label.  Chickens in the wild are not naturally vegetarian at all! They consider small insects, worms, lizards and even little mice part of a balanced diet, along with seeds and grasses. Chickens on a pure vegetarian diet have to have vitamin supplementation to cover their protein needs.

If the label says  “OMEGA 3” or “VITAMIN ENHANCED,” the chicken’s feed has been boosted with quality foods designed to improve the health of the person eating the eggs. This may or may not be confirmed or regulated and the hen herself may still be living in difficult circumstances.

A label saying “CERTIFIED HUMANE” means that groups of farming experts with detailed rules are hired by farms to make sure the hens that lay the eggs are taken care of in ways that reduce or prevent pain and suffering. This is one way to assure that animal welfare has been taken into consideration.

If the label says “FARM FRESH,” it doesn’t mean anything, really.

If the label says “ALL NATURAL,” it just means that nothing was added to the egg, like colors or flavors. It tells you nothing about how the hen was raised or cared for. It just says it’s an egg.

If the label says “BROWN,” it just means that the egg is brown colored, which is not better or worse than any other color and does not influence the quality of the egg. The breed of the hen determines the color of her egg.

Not surprisingly, the eggs from chickens raised under better circumstances will cost a little more.  However, it’s good to note that as consumers, the choices we make influence our own lives AND influence the farming industry. We will have more on this next week.  To the extent that it is within your means and interest level, Earth for All Ages recommends that you buy organic, pasture raised eggs with a certification that the chickens are treated humanely.