Thursday, March 17, 2011

Labels, Labels, Labels!

You may have noticed that there are more options at the local grocery for eggs these days...  Regular (conventional) eggs, Cage-Free eggs, Free Range eggs, Organic eggs & Vegetarian eggs.  Have you ever wondered what all these labels really mean?  I aim to satisfy the inquiring mind, so here's the skinny on all those labels...

These are the eggs that most consumers are purchasing.  They cost roughly $1.00-1.50/dozen and come in more generic packaging (no specialty labeling).  Many of the hens laying these eggs are given less space than a standard-sized sheet of notebook paper to live in and are often caged in battery cages.  There’s not even enough room to spread their wings.  Thankfully, after much public opposition, many egg-producers are moving from battery-cage systems to cage-free systems.

Cage Free
As stated, these hens are able to move about without being confined to cages. A significant improvement when compared to the confines of a battery cage; however, the absence of cages doesn’t always ensure high levels of welfare.  Cage free hens are often subject to crowded spaces (hens are housed together by the thousands), trimmed beaks (beaks are partially burned off to prevent pecking), no outdoor access, and early slaughter (slaughtered at approx. 2 years of age, less than ½ their normal lifespan).  There is no doubt that these hens live a less cruel life than caged hens; at the very least, they have the ability to spread their wings, lay eggs in nests and run about.  While I feel producers should do all they can to provide the best possible environment for their hens, to be fair, I must say that it would be near impossible for large producers to allow more luxuries than a cage-free system provides while continuing to supply the demand and sell eggs at a price most consumers are willing to pay.    

Free Range
This label gives the buyer a vision of chickens roaming freely on the green pastures of a rural farm.  Unfortunately, Free Range is an unregulated term and can be used by anyone.  All you need is a door that allows access to an outdoor area.  The size of that outdoor area could virtually be the size of a battery cage.  The only way to know that your eggs are laid by Free Range hens is to purchase them from a producer whose production standards can be verified or to raise them yourself.

Organic eggs come from hens that were fed an organic diet.  Again, it is my belief, that the only way you’ll be absolutely sure your eggs (or any food labeled organic for that matter) are truly organic is to purchase them from a producer whose practices can be verified or to raise organic hens/eggs yourself (which would include organically growing the feed that they eat).  Unfortunately, some of the food items the USDA considers to be organic are questionable.  For example, artificial sweeteners like, Neotame, are among the ingredients approved for organic food processing on the USDA’s list of “Certified Organic” food items.  Not sure when “artificial” became the new “organic”, but that’s just me.  By the way, I am not a die-hard organic food buyer, eater, grower, etc…nor are my hens fed an organic diet.

These hens are fed a vegetarian diet (i.e. no animal fat proteins, meats, etc…). Let me point out that chickens are omnivores by nature, not vegetarians, and, if allowed, will eat bugs, grubs, worms, etc... If hens have access to the outdoors (which I feel is very important for the health and happiness of the hen), the chances of the eggs actually coming from a vegetarian chicken are slim to none.  So, if you want to ensure you’re eating eggs from girls that have seen the grass and mud of the Earth beneath their feet, Vegetarian labeled eggs are not for you.

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