Whether you celebrate Easter for its spiritual significance, or if you simply enjoy it as an opportunity to inhale handfuls of chocolates and Peeps, chances are eggs are factoring into your festivities in some way, even if you’re only dyeing and hiding them.
But how do you choose which type of eggs to purchase? Cage-free, free-range, organic—these labels all evoke images of happy, healthy chickens clucking through grassy fields. But in reality, these terms don’t guarantee the humane treatment of laying hens or the nutrient value of the eggs they’re producing.
That’s why when purchasing eggs—now, and for the rest of the year—it’s important to take certain steps to ensure what you’re getting is the real deal.
Not All Labels Are Created Equal
First the bad news—some of the most popular egg labels don’t necessarily protect chickens from abuse.
- Cage-Free: This label simply means the absence of a cage. It doesn’t mean the absence of fences or enclosures in general. It also doesn’t guarantee that chickens have access to an outside area. Birds that qualify as cage-free can still be packed tightly into an overpopulated and darkened barn.
- Free-Range: When chickens are free-range, they’re required to have access to the outdoors—but that may amount to a narrow patch of dirt. Access to it can be a tiny door cut into the back of the shed, which in an overcrowded barn stuffed with hens, the birds may not ever notice, let alone use.
- Organic: This label dictates that the birds are antibiotic and hormone-free, in addition to being provided with access to the outdoors. Still, some organic farms abuse the system by housing their hens in overcrowded sheds—with a small, unused door. Under certain conditions, some may also make their chickens endure the painful process of beak trimming that’s common in factory farms.
- Certified Humane: According the Humane Society, even this certification allows for farmers to house chickens indoors at all times if they choose, and also permits beak cutting. A similar term, "American Humane Certified" allows laying hens to be caged.
What to Look for Instead
“Pasture-raised” is a label used increasingly by smaller, sustainable chicken farms to indicate that they legitimately raise their birds outside, on an actual pasture. Hens also enjoy access to shelter when they choose to take it, and they’re raised without the use of harmful chemicals or painful procedures.
The added bonus is that this kind of farming is as good for people as it is for the birds: Eggs from pasture-raised chickens are packed with more nutrients than their penned-in counterparts.
One small farmer who pasture-raises her hens is Carole Morison, a chicken farmer featured in the groundbreaking documentary Food Inc. Morison used to be a factory farmer for Perdue, but gave it up to raise her hens in a more sustainable and humane way.
“It’s really the best thing for the chickens,” she tells TakePart. “They can flap their wings and nest and forage in the grass.”
Morison adds that her hens are given vegetarian feed that’s free from antibiotics and arsenic, making it healthier for the birds, the people who eat their eggs and the local environment.
Because she keeps her operation small, Morison can also closely monitor her hens for signs of illness or injury, providing them with additional care as soon as it’s needed.
She says, “It’s like having 500 pets in my backyard. It’s enjoyable, it’s fun and they don’t run from you when they see you coming.”
Where to Shop
While it’s important to find eggs that are labeled “pasture-raised,” it’s also important to verify their authenticity. The label remains unregulated, so it’s up to the buyer to do a little research.
To make sure pasture-raised eggs come from birds who are truly well-tended, consumers can explore a few avenues.
- Whole Foods: Morison finds that the store does an excellent job of providing information to customers. “If you shop at Whole Foods, those eggs all have descriptions next to them that tell you how the hens were raised. Read those.”
- Your Farmers Market: “A farmers market is a great idea,” Morison explains. The reason is simple: Buyers can talk directly to local farmers to find out how many hens live on their farm, if those hens are housed or roam freely outside and what they’re fed.
- Take a Tour: “If there’s a farm nearby, you should be able to take a tour and see it for yourself.” Morison warns that farms with locked gates, which prevent even casual inspections from prospective egg buyers, are a big red flag. “When we worked with Perdue, our gates were always locked.” Now, she says, she welcomes visitors so that they can see for themselves that her birds are loved.
- The Animal Welfare Approved Program is a stringent certification process that provides consumers with information on farmers who genuinely raise their animals outside, under humane conditions. It awards approval only to family farmers and charges no fee to them. The AWA guide can be found on their website.
- The Cornucopia Institute also keeps a detailed online scorecard on a variety of chicken farmers, rating them based upon their adherence to ethical business practices.
Labeling eggs as free-range or cage-free may serve to make consumers feel good about their purchases, but they don’t necessarily translate into accomplishing anything good. While eggs may be at their most popular during the Easter season, making smarter choices about where those eggs are purchased can have long-lasting and positive effects—on our livestock, on our environment and on our personal health.
How do you ensure the eggs you purchase are cruelty-free? Let us know in the Comments.
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