If you're not vegan, eggs are one of the most common ingredients for baking. Millennials are the most conscientious shoppers and are more likely to pay attention to labels than any other generation, so next time you're in the grocery store, staring at the countless cartons of eggs lined in the refrigerator, take a moment to notice the different labels and what they mean.
A quick lesson on eggs:
According to the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, a group that includes commercial egg producers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several universities, 95 percent of eggs in the U.S. come from chickens raised in battery cages. These cages house anywhere from four to 12 birds, giving each bird roughly 67 square inches of floor space (that's about the size of an iPad). However, as of January 2015, eggs sold in California must come from chickens enjoying at least 116 square inches of space. The cages are stacked in long rows, inside massive barns that usually house tens of thousands of birds and they're typically fed a mixture of corn and feed made from animal byproducts. You can see a video of such a facility here, courtesy of Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply.
A quick lesson on labels:
You'll see labels such as: All-Natural, Cage-Free, Free-Range, Farm Fresh, Organic, No Hormones and Omega-3. Here's what NPR found when interviewing Paul Shapiro, vice president of the Humane Society of the U.S. and an expert on commercial egg production.
This sounds like a local farmer sold these eggs to the company listed on the carton, but the reality of this labeling is that it, like many of marketing labels, means absolutely nothing.
"It literally means nothing," says Shapiro. He says the term is probably meant to create a favorable image in the consumer's mind, but it has no substance whatsoever.
This is another commonly used label that carries no significance. Shapiro says it's also ironic "because [conventional chickens] are raised in the least natural conditions imaginable."
These birds usually live in aviaries, which are massive industrial barns that house thousands of birds. On average, each bird has one square foot of space.
Shapiro believes cage-free birds are better off than caged birds since they're able to walk around and spread their wings, however, the science around the health of cage-free birds is less clear. A three-year study of egg production technique at Michigan State University shows cage-free birds have more feathers and stronger bones and exhibit more natural behaviors, but crowded aviaries also come with the risk of reduced air quality and twice the likelihood of dying. Over the course of the study, less than five percent of birds in cages died, compared with more than 11 percent of cage-free birds. One of the most common causes of death was pecking by other chickens.
According to USDA regulations, organic eggs must come from chickens that are free-range (cage-free plus access to the outdoors), fed organic feed (no synthetic pesticides) and receive no hormones or antibiotics. But as was the case with "free-range" eggs, "organic" eggs are usually coming from birds that live in crowded, industrial aviaries.
It's actually illegal to give hormones to poultry in the U.S., so this label is misleading. It's like labeling fresh fruits and vegetables as "gluten free." These foods are supposed to be gluten free, so the label is just a marketing gimmick.
Antibiotics are rarely used in the egg industry, according to Shapiro. Chickens that are raised for meat consumption, however, do commonly get antibiotics to fend off disease and increase growth.
Free-range means cage-free plus "access to the outdoors." Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute says this "access" typically consists of few small doors that lead to a screened-in porch with cement, dirt or a particle of grass. Kastel also says industrial fans that suck ammonia out of the building often create "hurricane winds" through the small doorways, so the birds probably keep inside to avoid that chaos.
These hens are probably given flaxseed mixed in with their corn feed, possibly leading to higher levels of omega-3s in their eggs.
Chickens are naturally omnivores, getting their protein from worms, grasshoppers and other insects, so why on earth would you want them to eat a vegetarian diet? Hens that are fed a "vegetarian diet" are likely eating corn fortified with amino acids.
The cruelty that chickens endure via factory farming and the egg industry is tremendous. Although there isn't a completely cruelty-free way to consume eggs without having your own chicken, pasture raised eggs are a step towards a more humane industry and lifestyle.
Although a farm "pasture" is nothing close to the wild natural habitat of chickens, it's a better alternative to a chicken living a life of stress and pain in cramped cages or aviaries. Pasture raised chickens are at higher risks to predators than if they lived in their natural environment, but it is a freer life than factory farming.
So, if vegan treats are out of the question (although I suggest not knocking it until you try it), pasture raised eggs are an effortless step in the journey towards creating a more humane, cruelty-free world.
Kelto, A. (2014, December 23). Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs Not Always What They're Cracked Up To Be. Retrieved December 15, 2017, from https://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/12/23/370377902/farm-fresh-natural-eggs-not-always-what-they-re-cracked-up-to-be