If there’s one area of the food world where labels and claims are the slipperiest, it’s the egg industry.
As public awareness has increased around the conditions of conventional large-scale animal husbandry, and the nature of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations in which these animals are raised, there has been a much deserved demand for more humane standards of care. This demand has made a lot of progress towards being met – however, right now this demand is mostly being met with murkey claims that only give off the appearance of something better. Nowadays, seemingly every carton of eggs available for purchase carries the claim “cage-free”, so as to signal to the consumer “these eggs come from happier hens!”. While it’s nice to imagine that the entire standard of egg-production has shifted to a more humane model, the truth is the criteria for what constitutes “cage-free” or similar sounding labels aren’t all that satisfying. While labels always have a potential to be misleading, consider this to be doubly so in the case of eggs. Which is why we find it so important to understand just what you’re buying, that way you can actually get what you want.
Before we dissect the term “cage-free”, let’s first address the standard for raising egg-laying hens in the United States. Unless stated otherwise, all meat and animal products produced from large-scale operations employ the use of contained animal feeding operations (CAFOs for short). The nature of CAFOs is enough to make any sensible human repulsed; thousands of animals are stuffed into a single building, often into cages, where they are restricted from movement, outdoor space, and any semblance of a healthy life. In a simple sense, the experience of an animal in one of these farms is likely akin to a prisoner of war held in the most inhumane of internment camps. The environment for laying hens raised in CAFO lots is especially alarming. Hens are packed into “battery cages”, wire-made containers that are designed to stack on top of one another. Given only 67 inches of space each (that’s less than your standard letter-size paper), these birds are inhibited from their most basic and essential behaviors such as nesting, dust bathing, or even spreading their wings. As if being confined to such tight quarters wasn’t bad enough for these hens, all day and night they live with other birds right above them – anything that drops from the cages up high ends up in their cages or on their bodies. As they spend their entire lives in these farm structures with virtually zero exposure to fresh air, the air they breathe is a constant flow of contamination for their lungs and an assault on their immune function. If you’ve ever wondered why antibiotics are so widespread in the chicken industry, there’s part of the answer for you – the air they rely on in order to sustain their lives is in fact causing debilitating sickness, to the extent that drugs are just as essential to their survival as food. The scene laid out above is the standard for the egg-production industry. Unless an egg carton has a particular label attached, the eggs inside are the product of chickens condemned to a life of constraint and sickness – a situation nobody wants to exist. So in order to act as conscious consumers we need to know that the animals we benefit from are treated well, and understanding what’s behind a label is one of the primary means to do so.
While the claim suggests, these chickens are indeed free from life in a cage. Unfortunately, the majority of egg-laying hens raised in the United States are confined to wire-cages throughout their lives, and are robbed of their ability to naturally express “their chickeness”. So the good news is that “cage-free” does indicate an increase in quality of life for these birds versus their conventionally raised counterparts. However, just because they aren’t being stuffed into cages doesn’t mean that they are necessarily free from confinement – many cage-free birds are still confined into extremely tight quarters. United Egg Producers, one of the major regulatory bodies for egg producers, only require farms to have 1-1.5 square feet per hen in cage-free facilities. If that doesn’t sound like a lot of space, that’s because it isn’t a lot of space. As well as such inhibiting proximity to other hens, egg-laying birds in cage-free environments are still subject to poor environmental conditions, low-quality feed, and even questionable handling practices. In short, “cage-free” is certainly a step in the right direction, and it is still a far-cry from being ideal. Lots of the same issues that present themselves in the standard CAFO egg facilities are also found in cage-free operations, only with cage-free eggs many of us are fooled into believing the situation is different.
So what is the ideal? What does “different” look like when it comes to the egg industry and their standards of production? Frankly it looks like Fulcrum Farm. Here on our property we prioritize the nature of the animals and their capacity to express their innermost essence. This means we never confine our chickens to tight quarters, let alone a single space. Our birds are given access to our pastures to act as chickens do; they roam the open swaths of grass foraging for bugs and other treats, they spread their wings and roost when it’s comfortable, and they scuttle in the dust to bathe themselves at their leisure. It’s in the freedom to be a chicken that happy chickens are made, and where high-quality, nutritious food is created. This is how it should be for every farm and for every animal.
Of course, this just isn’t realistic for everyone and every situation – not yet at least. The fact is there are over 350 million American’s to feed, and to produce food at that scale requires that farmers optimize for efficiency. It’s the demand to feed our nation’s populace that gave rise to CAFO farms in the first place. This doesn’t mean we need to stand for what’s in place as if it’s the only option – we can and should be advocating for better, more humane practices in our farming industries and our dollars are how we make ourselves heard.
If you can, choose to buy eggs from your local farmers or even your neighbors. The more you can support your local food producers and your immediate economy the better. If you don’t have that option, opt for choices in the grocery stores that are doing the most good for the animals and leading the push for a change in practicing standards – brands such as Pete and Gerry’s, Happy Egg Co., Vital Farms, and Oliver’s Organics, or any others stamped with “Certified Humane”, “Global Animal Partnership” and/or “Animal Welfare Approved” – the current most reputable organizations who are ensuring the welfare of egg laying hens and other livestock.
Our goal is to not change what you do. We don’t want to tell you what to buy or how to spend your money. We merely want to help empower you to make your decisions with more clarity and assurance through understanding the other side of food labels and marketing claims. Whether you buy your eggs from the store, from a local farmer, or grow them yourself (stay tuned for how-to’s!), our aim is to give you all the information you need to orient yourself in the direction that feels right for you. While we’re happy to rattle the notion of “cage-free”, it’s only just the start! There’s much more to uncover and a lot more to learn!