Old McDonald Would Never Approve of Selling Caged Eggs

A new lawsuit may mean egg carton labels have to finally disclose chicken farmers’ true production methods.

As a result of clever marketing schemes, egg carton labels often use terms such as 'farm-fresh' or 'animal-friendly' to hide their factory farm origins. (Photo: Gary John Norman/Getty Images)

Mar 31, 2013· 2 MIN READ
A Bay Area native, Andri Antoniades has previously worked as a fashion industry journalist and a medical writer.

It’s no wonder we’ve been talking a lot about egg carton labels recently: The food industry’s labeling practices are notorious for causing confusion. Light, breezy terms like “farm-fresh” and “vegetarian-fed” are often accompanied by carton pictures of elated chickens roaming across green pastures. As TakePart recently reported, those practices can mislead consumers into buying eggs they think are cruelty-free.

But a new lawsuit hopes to change all that. The Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) and Compassion Over Killing filed a suit this week against agencies, including the USDA and FDA, which are responsible for governing egg carton labels. The groups’ goal is for a more defined and tightly governed system, with clearly labeled cartons that reveal accurate egg production methods—including the identification of “Eggs from Caged Hens.”

The ALDF reports that up to 95 percent of all eggs in this country actually come from caged chickens, but are dressed up with slick marketing schemes that purposefully portray otherwise.

“Farm-fresh,” “animal-friendly,” or “naturally raised” are all unregulated terms that fool shoppers into believing the eggs they’re purchasing come from chickens receiving a much higher level of care than they are getting. Add in the pastoral landscapes that are often painted onto egg cartons and it’s no wonder shoppers believe they’re buying a humanely produced product.

ALDF’s Stefan Heller tells TakePart, “This is really about going after deceptive advertising schemes. Most consumers don’t want to pay for caged eggs and they’re willing to pay more for eggs that were achieved with a higher level of animal welfare,” he says. “Manufacturers are taking advantage of that willingness and that good consumer energy to place these deceptive images and statements on cartons and charge more for eggs that consumers across the board find unacceptable.”

The suit would also create stricter definitions for the already-regulated egg carton labels that are often assumed to guarantee humane raising methods. One of the most popular and confounding is “cage-free.” While consumers sometimes believe the label means the animals are raised outside, it actually means they’re raised in the absence of a cage. Cage-free chickens might still be shoved into an overpopulated barn without any outside access at all.

Heller says the suit would prevent that kind of deception and hold producers accountable for their production methods. “It would create a mandatory system where if cage-free appeared on egg carton labels, that would be linked to a specific definition and to use that terminology, producers would have to meet that definition,” he says. “Because right now there’s lot of room to quibble over what those terms mean, and that gives producers leeway to take advantage of consumers’ good intentions.”

The reason there is so much room to quibble is that currently the USDA and their partnering agencies each internally define terms like cage-free or free-range, so there hasn’t been a singular, across-the-board definition of them. But Heller explains that his organization’s proposed mandatory egg carton labeling requirements would create a unifying set of guidelines, which would mean a term like cage-free could no longer be applied to birds that were mistreated.

The ALDF is waiting for a response from the agencies named in the suit, which it expects sometime in the next month.

Cleaning up the egg industry is long overdue, both for the animals that it’s abusing and the shoppers who are vehemently opposed to funding that abuse. Heller says, “Consumers really deserve the truth, and the hens deserve the truth, and the point of the suit is that we’re trying to make sure the producers have to tell the truth.”

If you’d like to make sure the eggs you’re buying are actually cruelty-free, both the Animal Welfare Approved Program and The Cornucopia Institute provide excellent online resources.

Related articles on TakePart:

• Egg Labels Aren't All They're Cracked Up to Be

• Sustainable Food Trends Appear on Passover Tables

• What’s the Future of Organic Farming? Ask the Golden State