Ethical Eggs: Demystifying Egg Carton Labels

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Ethical Eggs: Demystifying Egg Carton Labels

Buying ethical eggs and egg carton labels and their meanings.

Very few consumers are lucky enough to keep chickens in their backyards or have access to fresh eggs at a farmers market or organic foods store, but a whole lot of consumers are paying attention to how their food is raised so they can make better decisions. As you stand in the grocery aisle looking at a dozen eggs, how can you know what the labels on the cartons mean?

Cage-free. Free-range. Pasture-raised. Certified organic. Natural. These all sound like good things. You even have a choice between brown or white shells. Start by knowing what certifications actually mean, and then you can make informed choices.

United Egg Producers Certified

Many egg cartons are stamped with this designation, but consumers should not be lulled into a false sense of confidence that it means the chickens were treated humanely. Caged birds may never nest, perch, forage or even spread their wings; their only reason for existence is to pump out eggs. As a voluntary program, United Egg Producers certified “cage-free” may mean the birds live indoors at all times with only one square foot of floor space allowed per animal. Ethical consumers should hold their food producers to higher standards. Even though the idea of “cage-free” sounds good on the surface, if the only certification on the carton comes from United Egg Producers, put the package back on the shelf and keep looking.

Certified Humane

The Humane Farm Animal Care organization offers three levels of certification and requires farmers to submit to regular inspections. “Cage-Free” means the chickens are not kept in cages, the chickens may be indoors their whole lives. Chickens are allowed to bathe in the dust and nest at will. “Free-Range” is a step up: the chickens must be allowed outdoors at least six hours a day with at least two square feet of space per chicken, but the outdoors doesn’t need to have vegetation. “Pasture-Raised” means the chickens are placed on spacious, green pasture at least six hours per day and allowed to roam and forage at will.

Animal Welfare Approved

A growers’ audit that receives the Animal Welfare Institute’s Grass-fed and pasture-raised meatstamp of approval has met the highest standards in caring for their flocks of chickens. Growers provide spacious indoor living with perches and nesting boxes. There is outdoor access so the hens can range and forage in green conditions. Individual flocks must have fewer than 500 chickens. Chickens are not starved or mutilated. Eggs are grown commercially and chickens are treated more like backyard chickens than any other situation.

As you can see, different growers use the same terms to describe wildly varying living conditions for their animals, and there are other certification programs, too. These certifications are only for large-scale commercial growers, and the eggs you find at the farmers market or whole foods store may or may not be “certified” under one of these programs.

How do you make an informed decision about the eggs you feed your family? Keep in mind that many eggs are packed and branded by producers who had nothing to do with how the chickens were treated. Call the actual producer and ask the following questions:

  1. Are the chickens allowed access to the outdoors? Is the chickens’ outdoor space covered with vegetation during the growing season, and how many square feet is allowed per bird?
  2. What are the indoor conditions like? Do the birds dust-bathe, perch and nest? How many square feet is allowed per chicken?
  3. What is in the chicken’s feed?

Once you have satisfactory answers to these questions, you’ll be able to decide which brand is best. If humane treatment of farm animals is a priority for you, find out for yourself what’s going on and don’t just trust the labels.

By the way, there’s almost no nutritional difference between brown eggs and white eggs. The color of the shell is based on the breed of the chicken that laid it. May all your breakfasts be humane, ethical and delicious!

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