Why Some Eggs Are Not All They’re Cracked Up to Be
Uncovering the meaning behind the labels on egg cartons.
By Courtney Kopec
Choosing the right carton of eggs to buy from the supermarket can be a brain-scrambling experience these days. It seems as if overnight an endless variety of eggs appeared — from organic to free-range to cage-free to local. Though some cartons have phrases like, “free-range” and “cage- free” stamped across the front, the lingo has done little to actually educate the consumer. If shoppers are to make wise decisions regarding which eggs to buy these days, an ability to read between the lines and understand labels is needed.
“Organic” is a term that is being seen more and more and it typically comes with a high price tag. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), in order for a farmer or handler to be allowed to label their food “organic,” the farmer must be certified by a state or a private organization that adheres to the specific standards developed by the USDA. This means that in the case of the egg, it must come from a chicken that was fed a diet free of synthetic fertilizers, animal by-products, pesticides, antibiotics, genetically modified foods or other additives. In order to feed a chicken all these good things, a farmer has to spend more money, which is why the consumer must pay more for the product. However, you get what you pay for since an egg from an organic chicken is undoubtedly raised in a safe environment, fed a natural diet and free of disease and the use of antibiotics.
Another common label is “free-range.” The term means that the chickens are allowed access to the outdoors. While the USDA’s Food Safety Inspection Service has regulations for farmers raising poultry for meat, there is no such regulation required for the term with regard to egg-laying hen’s eggs. According to the Mayo Clinic, “there are no USDA standards regarding the use of the term ‘free-range’ for egg-producing hens, although you might see that term on egg cartons.” It is also worth noting that even in the case of free-range chickens, the USDA only requires that the chicken have access to the outside. It does not specify if the chicken even has to be outside of its cage or for how long it is allowed access to natural daylight.
“Cage-free” means that the hens are being raised outside of cages, laying eggs in nests with the opportunity to roam and spread their wings. The vision of these hens living such free-spirited lives is certainly a pleasant one; however, there is speculation as to just how realistic it is. The New York Times stated in an article published back in 2007 that, “the term ‘cage free’ is lightly regulated. Companies get approval to use it on their labels through the Food Safety Inspection Service of the Agriculture Department, which does not actually inspect laying operations.” The USDA is not even involved in the process of this sort of labeling, nor is there any promise that cage-free chickens have a better life than those kept in the conventional “battery cages.” While some argue that cage-free birds have more space to walk around and take part in natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing and are less likely to live in a diseased environment, the verdict is still out.
Marie Wheatley, president of the American Humane Association, was quoted in the New York Times article as saying, “It’s not black and white but the consumers think it is.”
It is understandable how one might imagine it worse to raise an egg-laying hen in a battery cage as small as 67 square inches — about the size of a laptop – than in a cage-free environment. Though their lives only last between 12 and18 months, to spend that time in cramped, wire cages with up to eight other birds does seem harsh. However, cage-free does not mean cruelty-free and hens can still be kept in cramped spaces without light or access to the outdoors.
It appears that the egg is not exempt from foul play and the system of egg production is still a bit cracked. When all is said and done, the best bet is to buy organic (or through known local sources.) Though the cost is pricier, the consumer can better trust the promise behind the product.