What if Food Labels Served as Warning Signs Instead of Marketing Devices?

Proposed legislation would introduce an ‘eggs from caged hens’ label, allowing consumers to face the facts in the grocery store.

What if Food Labels Served as Warning Signs?

A key to the U.K.'s egg codes. (Photo: lioneggfarms.co.uk)

Twilight Greenaway is an Oakland-based writer and editor who has been working on the web since 2000.

How would our food choices be different if labels had to provide a more transparent view of the production systems behind the products? If, for example, food labels were used to disclose the kinds or amount of pesticides and synthetic fertilizer that were used to grow the food, whether the workers had been exploited, or how animals were treated? And instead of being seen as some special, elite option, organic, fair trade, and antibiotic-free food came to be seen as the less complicated options?

It might sound unrealistic, but get this: In the case of eggs, this type of labeling has been going on in the European Union since 2004. In the E.U., all eggs that appear in stores must be labeled with one of three choices: “eggs from caged hens”; “barn eggs,” which come from hens we call “cage-free” here in the U.S. (i.e. they’re still raised in big indoor facilities); and “free-range.” They also stamp a number, in ascending order from more desired to least, on the eggs themselves (0 is code for organic eggs and 3 is code for eggs from caged hens).

As you might guess, this shift created a sea change in egg consumption and production patterns. In the U.K., more than half of eggs (51 percent) came from barn, free-range or organic farm hens in 2011—that number was only 14 percent in 1995.

Case in point: When I asked a friend from the U.K. to help me get a photo of an “eggs from caged hens” label recently, she put a call out to a group of friends to see if anyone could take a snapshot the next time they were picking up groceries. In the days that followed, it became obvious that none of her friends would ever buy those eggs.

By now, you might be thinking: “Okay, so the E.U. has its stuff together. But that could never happen here, could it?”

It’s true that, for now, eggs laid by hens living in battery cages are still seen as the “normal” and perhaps less-fancy choice. And considering the fact that a full 95 percent of the eggs we eat are still raised that way, it’s easy to see why—just like meat raised in factory farms has come to be seen as “normal meat” because it makes up around the same percentage of the market share.

Now for the slightly mind-blowing part: There happens to be a federal bill sitting in Congress right now that would require eggs from caged hens in the U.S. to be labeled just like they are in the E.U. What’s even more surprising? The bill has the support of both the United Eggs Producers, the biggest egg industry lobby in the country, and the Humane Society of the United States.

How did this happen? Let’s just say it’s a compromise. Along with mandatory truth-in-labeling, the bill would also require all egg producers to move away from tiny, barren, single-bird battery cages, and start building what are called “enriched colonies,” or somewhat larger cages shared by a group of birds given nesting boxes and perches. (The E.U. enacted the same change in 2012).

You see, California’s Proposition 2, and an accompanying piece of state legislation, would together require all egg producers within the state—and anyone else selling their eggs in California—to switch to cage-free systems in 2015. In the eyes of the United Egg Producers, enriched colonies are preferable to cage-free systems. And, from the HSUS’ perspective, it makes sense to institute change on a national level, rather than essentially limiting it to one state.

So, if the bill passes, “eggs from caged hens” will mean something else entirely. It could also start a wave of change in the realm of food labeling—something you can guess most other stakeholders in the agriculture industry don’t want to see.

For instance, an Associated Press article that ran last year uncovered a letter from a coalition of beef, pork and lamb producers to Debbie Stabenow, the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, about the proposed bill. In it they wrote: “Our gravest concern is that this could leach into all corners of animal farming.”

We’re probably not likely to see labels reading “cows raised on a crowded feedlot” on burger labels any time soon. But can you imagine what that kind of step might do to boost grass-fed beef production, and bring down overall meat consumption, for that matter? Indeed the options—when it comes to bringing transparency back to the food system—are just about endless.

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