Here at Oak & Soul we’re big on living a more intentional lifestyle. To us, a big part of making intentional choices is learning about where our food comes from. Not just to benefit ourselves as consumers (healthier food, no artificial ingredients, organically produced etc.) but to ensure that we’re not supporting animal farming practices that we believe are inhumane.
Eggs are a common item on most families grocery lists and the vast majority of eggs produced come from high intensity, factory like farms. The chickens that produce those eggs are subject to some of the worst animal welfare conditions I can think of.
As people have become more conscious of the conditions these birds are raised in, alternatives have become much more common. Eggs labelled “cage free”, “free range”, “comfort cage” or “farm fresh” are readily available for consumers looking to make better choices, but do you know what all those different labels actually mean?
Whether you’re shopping for eggs from happy hens, or are looking to get the added nutritional benefits of naturally raised chickens, are you actually getting what you think you’re getting?
Let’s explore the egg industry a bit…
This year my family has started raising our own chickens. Our flock of chicks is just over two weeks old as I write this and already I can see their little personalities developing. There are curious ones, shy ones, bullies and sweet little souls. They explore their environment, hunt for bugs, peck and scratch through the dirt, race as fast as they can from one side of the pen to the other and collapse in a pile for a nap.
They have no less individuality and engagement with their environment than any animal we invite into our homes as pets. They are not unthinking or unfeeling automatons that can be treated as a commodity.
But unfortunately that’s exactly how conventional egg producers treat them.
About 90-95% of egg laying hens in North America (which amounts to about 23 million hens in Canada alone) are kept in battery cages. I’m not going to get into all the nasty details, but the basics that all consumers should understand about them is…
// Each battery cage houses several birds, leaving each hen with a living space about the size of an average sheet of paper. This means she doesn’t have the space to even turn around properly, much less stretch her wings out from time to time.
// Hens have no opportunity to engage in any natural behaviours that keep them mentally engaged or occupied.
Battery cages have been completely banned in Sweden, Switzerland, Belgium and Austria, and were banned in California last year. Unfortunately, Egg Farmers of Canada is only planning a slow phase out over the next 20 years.
The best way to avoid eggs that have come from battery caged hens? Learn what the different egg labels actually mean so you can support the farms that do it better!
What Do Those Egg Labels Really Mean?
Free Run / Cage Free
These terms are interchangeable, the only difference is that “free run” is used more commonly in Canada and “cage free” in the US.
While the term free run evokes images of chickens freely running around outside, that’s not actually the case. Even though they’re a HUGE step up from battery cages, a free run production still leaves a lot to be desired.
The typical setup has the hens in cage free barn housing. The stocking densities are very high and the girls don’t have access to the outdoors, but they are able to move about, stretch their wings and engage in some basic natural behaviours.
A free range production is basically as above with the addition of some limited outdoor access. The amount of time the hens are outside varies from farm to farm and is dependent on the weather conditions. There aren’t hard and fast standards in place for minimum amount of outdoor access or the quality of outdoor range. The birds may have access to pasture for foraging in to keep them busy and occupied, or they may just have a dirt yard to stand around in.
The organic label not only ensures the hens feed is free from additives, but also guarantees some minimum standards for the birds husbandry. Management is similar to a free range operation but generally includes more outdoor time and lower stocking densities than industry standard.
The gold standard for the healthiest, most humane eggs available. Pastured hens have significant access to the outdoors on quality green pasture. Pastured eggs contain higher levels of numerous vitamins and minerals and the chickens themselves get a good quality of life.
Comfort Cages / Nest Laid
Not much better than battery cages. These operations provide somewhat improved cages to the hens and a lower stocking density, but the conditions are still far from ideal. No outdoor access is available or ability to engage in natural behaviours.
Omega 3 Enriched / Vegetarian Fed
While nutritionally beneficial for the consumer, eggs with these labels have likely come from battery caged hens.
Farm Fresh / Natural
There are numerous labels like these (usually used with a picture of a sunshiny, beautiful farmscape) that are meant to conjure a positive image in the consumers mind but they really don’t mean anything. These labels are common on eggs from battery caged hens.
Health Benefits of Pastured Eggs
Quite simply, the healthier and more natural the hens diet is, the healthier the eggs she produces will be. Conventionally raised hens are fed diets high in grain and soy products while pastured hens forage for greens, seeds, bugs and worms.
The nutritional differences between pastured eggs and eggs from confined hens are significant. Pastured eggs are…
// Lower in cholesterol and saturated fats
// Contain higher levels of Vitamins A and E
// Have more beneficial Omega 3 fatty acids
// Contain significantly higher levels of beta carotene
Once you understand what the different egg labels mean it’s easy to make better choices at the supermarket. Choosing organic or pastured eggs benefits not only you and your family but helps to support operations that manage their flocks in a more natural, humane way.
That’s the beautiful thing about learning where things come from… we become empowered with the knowledge of how to do better, how to stop supporting practices that don’t align with our ethics and to reward the ones that do.
Don’t forget to visit your local farmers market to connect directly with small scale farmers! Most will be happy to tell you all about how their hens are managed.
Hope that clears up some of the confusion around ethical eggs. Have any of you switched from conventional to a healthier variety? Have you noticed the taste difference between them? We’d love to hear what you think about this issue!