Soft-boiled eggs are my personal version of “fast food.” I throw a couple in my purse every morning, put them in the fridge when I get to work, and later pull them out when I need a nutritious and satiating snack. They’ve only cracked once while in transit; that was an awkward subway ride. But at least I had more personal space than usual…

This won’t come as a surprise, but I am extremely picky about my eggs. In fact, each weekend, I travel all the way across the city to get a couple dozen fresh eggs from a co-op that carries true pasture-raised eggs from a great little family-owned farm outside of the city.

Why do I go so out of my way to get these eggs when there are a handful of grocery stores just a few blocks away from my home? Compared to commercially-produced eggs, eggs from pasture-raised hens have been shown to contain:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene

These dramatically differing nutrient levels are most likely the result of the differences in diet between pastured hens and commercially farmed hens, as well as the overall heath of the hens (to learn more, see In defense of REAL eggs (yolks and all)).

Nowadays, you can walk into just about any grocery store and walk away with what you think are real eggs, eggs from healthy, happy hens, since egg cartons are plastered with terms like “cage-free,” “natural,” and “free-range.”

But what exactly do these terms mean?

  • “Cage-Free”: Hens are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
  • “Certified Organic”: Hens are uncaged inside barns, and are required to have outdoor access. However, the amount (space-wise), duration, and quality of outdoor access is not defined. Hens are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
  • “Free-Range” or “Free-Roaming”: The USDA has defined the terms of “free-range” for some poultry products, but there are no standards regarding “free-range” egg production. Free-range hens are typically uncaged inside barns and have some outdoor access. Again, the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access is not defined. Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting. This is very important: there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed, and there is no third-party auditing. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. (Kind of sounds like anything goes, huh?)
  • “Certified Humane” (a program of Humane Farm Animal Care): Hens are not caged, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stock density (the number of hens within a given area), and number of perches and nesting boxes available for the hens. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
  • “Animal Welfare Approved” (a program of the Animal Welfare Institute): The birds are cage-free and continuous outdoor perching access is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Birds must be allowed to molt naturally and beak cutting is prohibited. These are the highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program.
  • “American Humane Certified” (a program of the American Humane Association): Hens may be caged or cage-free. Hens that are confined in these so-called “furnished cages” have about the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper (“humane certified,” eh?). These cages are detrimental to animal welfare, and they are opposed by nearly every major US and EU animal welfare group. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
  • “Food Alliance Certified” (a program of the Food Alliance): The birds are cage-free and access to outdoors or natural daylight is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Starvation-based molting is prohibited. Beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance.
  • “United Egg Producers Certified” (a program of the United Egg Producers): The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. Hens laying these eggs have 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren battery cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.
  • “Vegetarian-Fed”: These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.
  • “Natural”: This term has no relevance to animal welfare. It simply means that nothing was added to the egg, such as flavorings, brines or coloring.
  • “Omega-3 Enriched”: Hens are fed a diet enriched with omega-3s. However, they are typically poor-quality sources of omega-3 fats that are already oxidized. Interestingly, omega-3 eggs have been shown to be far more perishable than non-omega-3 eggs. This term has no relevance to animal welfare.
  • “No added hormones”: This term is really just a marketing tactic as all farmers are legally prohibited from giving hormones to chickens. If present on a label, this term must be followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones” (or something along those lines).

Some of these are pretty misleading, huh?

The following websites can help you find true pasture-raised eggs in your area:

The Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard is also a great resource to help ensure you are purchasing quality, humanely-raised, pastured eggs.

To read more about the health benefits of eggs and egg production, see In defense of REAL eggs (yolks and all).

Source: The Humane Society of the United States, Egg Carton Labels

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