I was recently trying to design the “perfect” label for our eggs, and this has brought up discussions about labeling and marketing. When you look at egg cartons in the store, there are various terms thrown around that most people don’t fully understand, half the time I don’t even understand. Most of this is based on a difference in perception vs. reality.
Instead of trying to fit all this information on a small label, I thought I’d expand it into a post, but then realized even one post wasn’t enough. In order to describe how our chickens live, I first have to explain labeling terms and more about chickens in general. This post will focus on the terms you see on labels.
Let’s start with the term cage-free. When I first heard cage-free I was a bit confused because I thought chickens ran around the farm like in story books and tv. Turns out I was wrong. Some chickens are kept in small cages with little or no room to move. According to the Humane Society, “On average, each caged laying hen is afforded only 67 square inches of cage space—less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper on which to live her entire life.” Knowing what I know now about chicken behavior, this practice is neither humane nor healthy. So the question is, what does cage-free mean? It means that the chicken is allowed enough room to move, walk, stretch, and be a chicken. However, those chickens may still be kept in flocks of thousands with no access to outdoors.
The next term people often see on egg cartons is Free-Range or Free-Roaming. The only difference in this term and cage-free, is that the chickens have access to the outside. According to the USDA, “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” There doesn’t seem to be a requirement of how long they must be outside each day or if every chicken even goes outside. Also, just sticking their head though a hole seems to count as access to the outside.
Pasture-Raised is typically chickens raised on pasture. They live in movable houses and are rotated to new pasture periodically. This is the healthiest and safest way to manage flocks of chickens. So, if you are dealing with store bought eggs or meat, go for those.
Antibiotic-free and Hormone-free simply mean the laying hen was raised without antibiotics and hormones. Although, it should be noted that US Federal Law prohibits the use of hormones in poultry and pork, so all chicken should be hormone free even if not labeled as such.
Other terms often on labels deal more with the diet of the chickens.
Enriched with Omega-3,means the chickens were fed a high Omega-3 diet which allows the eggs to have more than an egg from a hen fed a standard diet.
I’m not going to lie, “Vegetarian Fed” confuses me a bit. The label makes it sound like a good thing, but in fact it’s not. Well, I guess in a way its good, since it means the chickens can’t be fed weird meat byproducts that sometimes get fed to industry chickens. The thing is, chickens are omnivores. If you let a chicken loose to eat as it chooses, it will eat grains, vegetables, fruits, bugs, and even snakes and frogs. Let’s be real, their sharp little breaks are that way for a reason. By feeding them a vegetarian diet, they are missing out on key nutrients and that will effect the quality of meat and eggs. It also means they are most likely not foraging for yummy treats, which means they probably aren’t given access to a place to forage (aka pasture, nature, outside). The healthiest food will always be food from animals that eat what their bodies were designed to eat.
I saved the best for last, Organic. There mixed feelings about the term organic in general, but we won’t get into that right now. In chickens, organic means that they are fed an organic diet, live free-range, and receive no hormones or antibiotics. Unfortunately, given the vague definition of free-range, these chickens could be less healthy and nutritious than their pasture-raised non-organic cousins. Organic and pasture-raised would be the best when looking at labels.
Now if you really want to know and trust your eggs, the best way to do that is find a local seller and ask them about their chickens. Chicken people tend to love to talk about their chickens! Also, don’t be turned off if they say theirs aren’t organic, pasture-raised, or even free-range; chances are their chickens eat and live better than any industry chicken.