Still debating which came first, the chicken or the egg? Let’s take a moment to focus on a more important issue: what all of those supposedly "healthy" labels on our eggs actually mean. They're meant to grab the consumer’s attention and make us feel good about buying the product.
In reality, most of the labels are misleading, and it's high time we all know where our eggs really come from before we dig into our next omelet. Organic, you say? Producers are thrilled that this term has become synonymous with optimal health. Free-range? [Insert image of chicken getting a pedicure surrounded by rolling hills].
Not so fast. There are many practices of which egg producers hope you remain blissfully unaware. As consumers, we're responsible for making informed choices, so taking the time to learn about how your meat, dairy, and eggs are produced is imperative. Each time we purchase a grocery item, we are endorsing that product and the practices used to produce it.
Let’s review the common labels you will see on eggs and what they really mean.
There are no restrictions on what these birds are fed. Hens are uncaged inside barns and have access to the outdoors, but there are no standards that must be met for outdoor access. Assuming sufficient space and access to the outdoors, chickens can engage in natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging for insects. The practices of beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.
Hens are fed a diet that adheres to the standards set by the USDA to meet the National Organic Program standard. This means no antibiotics, no pesticides, and an organic, vegetarian diet. Birds are housed in barns and are required to have access to the outdoors, however, the quality and duration of access is ambiguous. The practices of beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Eggs are certified through the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program.
There are no restrictions on what these birds are fed. Hens are uncaged but outdoor access is not required. In addition to the ability to engage in behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing, hens are provided with nest boxes and perches. Forced molting is prohibited but beak cutting is not. The Certified Humane program was established by Humane Farm Animal Care.
Animal Welfare Approved
Birds cannot be fed antibiotics or growth hormones. Cages are not permitted and unlimited access to perches, nest boxes, and the outdoors is mandatory. As such, birds are able to engage in all natural behaviors. Beak cutting is prohibited and hens must be allowed to molt naturally. The Animal Welfare Approved standard was established by the Animal Welfare Institute.
American Humane Certified
Watch out for this label, as the word "humane" is misleading. This label allows cages, in which each hen has approximately 8 x 11 inches of living space. Birds cannot undergo forced molting through starvation, but beak cutting is permitted. This certification is not supported by any major animal welfare group in the U.S. or the European Union. American Humane Certified is a program of the American Humane Association.
It's easy to forget how our eggs ended up in a carton, but let me assure you that this is an important consideration. Think for a moment about the energetics of conventional versus humanely produced eggs. When we ingest products from animals that have suffered from prolonged stress, confinement, and inhumane practices, these effects are manifested in the quality and energy of our food.
Eggs are a great example. Any hormones or toxins in the bloodstream of a hen will ultimately end up in the eggs. When birds are laying under stressful conditions, the concentration of stress hormones excreted into their eggs will significantly increase. (I should note here that I have personally measured stress hormone concentrations in eggs as part of my academic career and can attest to the fact that these molecules are present in high concentrations in standard chicken eggs). While the effects of human consumption of hormone-laden animal foods has revolved largely around the effects of growth hormone and early onset puberty, it's almost certainly beneficial to avoid ingestion of additional stress hormones (let’s be honest, most of us produce enough on our own).
One of the best things you can do for the planet, domesticated animals, and your own health is to reconsider the sources of the meat, eggs, and dairy in your diet. Avoid products from factory farms at all costs and invest in humanely produced, organic animal products. Yes, Animal Welfare Approved products will be more expensive, but isn’t it worth the price?
Do your best to choose an indulgence you can do without, and spend the extra couple dollars on high-quality eggs. Better yet, head over to the local farmers' market and look for organic, pasture-raised eggs. Eggs sold at farmers' markets will be more affordable than those in a grocery store, plus you'll be the supporting local farms in your hometown. Win-win. Remember, when purchasing eggs, the chicken comes first.
PS — If you purchase eggs at the grocery store, I recommend the Egg Carton Label Guide to help you determine which label is best for the hens, and therefore best for you.