Living in Winnipeg gives me the chance to connect with farmers who sell eggs from chickens that are organically fed, and free to roam. For all of us egg-eaters however, we’ve surely been in the position where we’ve had to choose between natural, vegetarian-fed, omega-3, free-range, free-run, or certified organic eggs, at the supermarket. It’s just plain confusing if you ask me. In this blog, I hope to clarify what you get when you shop for eggs.
Thanks to the Vancouver’s Human Society, the “Chicken Out!” program has made egg shopping a little easier. Here is what this, and other sources have to say about egg-labels.
Free-run: Hens are free to run inside a barn, but lack outdoor access. However, this label is unregulated.
Free-range: This label suggests hens have “access” to the outdoors. But, this does not tell us how often or for what amount of time. As Kelly Myers, an Oregon chef says, on an industrial scale this label is likely to mask the scenario of thousands of chickens found in a large shed with a small door (through which the chickens may or may not venture).
Cage-free: Hens are not confined in cages. This generally means thousands of hens are roaming around a barn floor.
Because Free-run, Free-range, and Cage-free labels are not certified, and thus unregulated, Chicken Out recommends visiting farms or checking references to be sure their practices live up to these standards.
Certified Organic: Of the labels, this is one of the best and it ensures the most space for hens. Hens can roam outdoors, they are provided with perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas. Certification means farmers are inspected for animal welfare.
SPCA Certified or Certified Humane: These labels are sponsored by humane societies. Hens are free-range or free-run. Like Certified Organic, hens have perches, nest boxes, and dust-bathing areas. Farmers are audited for animal welfare.
Farm Fresh, Natural, Vegetarian-fed: These labels sound good, but they are unregulated and do not consider animal welfare. This means eggs come from hens raised in battery cages. Vegetarian-fed means no-animal by-products are used in the feed.
Omega-3: Omega-3 means a hen’s diet is supplemented with fish or flax omega-3 oils. One study looked for differences between oil content in certified-organic eggs versus omega-3 eggs, and found differences were negligible.
Summary: Certified Organic and SPCA Certified/Certified Human, are the only regulated eggs which guarantee the best animal welfare as far as labeled eggs go. If you want to support Free-range or Free-run eggs, make sure to check their source because these are unregulated labels. Natural, Vegetarian-fed, and Omega-3 eggs, among others, do not account for animal welfare and are from battery-caged hens. For more specific information about farming practices and animal welfare standards click here.
If you want to be safe, contact the egg farmers. This can even be done in urban areas where chicken farming is becoming more popular. Remember, bigger is not always better. My experience both in North America, and in Costa Rica, with very free-roaming chickens has opened my eyes to what happy, healthy chickens' eggs look like. Although egg size may vary with chicken breed, I bet you can guess which eggs in the picture below are from factory-farmed hens, and which are from the free-running, healthy eating kind.
One way to get around deciphering labels is to raise your own chickens! For the rest of us with chicken-free homes, here is a helpful guide to help with your informed egg-eating choices.
A friend of mine has recommended the booked “Eating Animals” by Johnathan Safran Foer, for a more in depth discussion on this topic.