Warning: What you are about to read is one serious Easter buzz kill. Yes, it concerns ovum. And no, “free range” don’t mean a thing.
Sorry, folks. But even though you’re trying to do right by animals and the environment by dropping six bucks per dozen “organic,” “free range,” and “cage-free” eggs, you’re not really doing much good. Allow me to eggsplain…
We’ll start with the baseline: conventional eggs, the kind you find at any supermarket, with no special labeling to confuse you. These come from hens kept in stacked battery cages, often four birds packed into one tiny space, where they’ve most likely had their beaks cut off to prevent them pecking each other to death, lose lots of feathers from rubbing up against the wires of the cage, are often subjected to periods of starvation to force molting (which increases egg production), and don’t have nearly enough space to spread their wings. “Spent hens” (hens that no longer produce eggs) are routinely killed—sometimes by being tossed into wood-chippers—as are scores of male chicks.
This incredibly disturbing video from Farm Sanctuary shows the battery-cage scene at its worst. (Though it should be noted that if you’re living in the state of California, it’s not this dire anymore; the cages are now bigger, allowing the hens to stand up and spread their wings without pressing up against the wire, thanks to law A.B. 1437, passed by voters in 2010. Ohio has also imposed a moratorium on new battery-cage facilities.)
Okay, okay, we know you haven’t bought conventional eggs since the early ’90s. So what about free-range?
Here’s the USDA’s definition of the labels “free range” or “free roaming” for poultry products (because no such standard even exists for egg-laying birds):
Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.
So basically, if hens are packed by the thousands into a dark warehouse (a common scenario), and there’s a tiny door at one end — a door that they may never have passed through — the eggs qualify for the misleading label. Same with cage-free, which means, simply, no cages. “One can reliably assume that most ‘free-range’ (or ‘cage-free’) laying hens are debeaked, drugged, and cruelly slaughtered once they are ‘spent’,” notes Jonathan Safran Foer in his bestselling Eating Animals. “I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.”
Hens who have their eggs labeled Certified Organic have a slightly better fate. In addition to being fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet, as required through the National Organic Program, the birds live cage-free inside of barns or warehouses, and are required to have access to the outdoors (though they might not actually see it). “The amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined,” notes the Humane Society.
For a better chance of buying eggs that come from ethically treated hens, look for the rare brand labeled with American Humane Certified, Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved, doled out to farmers who participate voluntarily in one of the three programs. Still, they are far from perfect: Certified Humane allows a certain type of beak clipping and for farmers to keep hens indoors; American Humane Certified permits beak clipping and the use of large-sized, “furnished” cages; and Animal Welfare Approved, which has the highest standards of all, according to the Humane Society, does not have any participating producers who sell to supermarkets—so good luck finding those. Plus, notes the Humane Society, “Virtually all hens in commercial egg operations come from hatcheries that kill all male chicks shortly after hatching.”
So what’s a well-meaning egg eater to do?
Looking for the relatively new Pasture Raised label— a signal that the hens have been raised in a true outdoor, green-pasture environment—is a good place to start, as is shopping at farmer’s markets.
“Often, though not always, eggs from farmers markets come from birds who were raised on pasture,” said Humane Society’s Paul Shapiro, head of the organization’s Factory Farming Campaign. “It’s a significant improvement for animal welfare compared to the way more than 95% of laying hens are raised in the country.” You can also buy directly from small farms, if there are any nearby, where you can ask questions about the hens’ treatment, making informed decisions based on what you’re comfortable with. Finally, if you’re blessed with a living space that supports the option, raising your own laying hens is of course a great solution, as keeping just a couple who are in prime laying years should get you enough of a yield to enjoy fresh omelets every few days.
And what if you decide that you’re not okay with any of it? Then take the PETA-suggested route and go vegan.