It saddening to realize the extraordinary cruelty inflicted on many of the commercial chickens of the world. An FDA inspection on two farms in Iowa that together produce over a billion eggs a year, found numerous violations, including infestations of flies, maggots, wild birds and rodents, piled manure and chickens crammed with up to 8 birds in stacked cages. That means each bird has only 67 square inches of floor space, or less than the size of an 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper. This leads to frustration and pecking, which is why many producers choose to cut their beaks to prevent them from hurting each other. Up to 1/3 of the laying hens have broken bones at the end of their most productive laying period, which in commercial factories is less than a year.
Evidence suggests that cage-free chickens have a lower risk of salmonella infection, and thankfully, the number of restaurants and retailers switching to cage-free eggs is growing. Walmart, Costco, Safeway, Trader Joes’ and Whole Foods are all shifting to cage-free eggs. So are Royal Carribbean and Carnival Cruise Lines, Ben & Jerry’s, Burger King, Denny’s, Subway and Wendy’s, as well as dining halls at numerous colleges and universities. Battery cages will be outlawed in California by 2015.
It’s confusing, though, to sort through the claims on the cartons at the grocery store. Here’s a rundown of some and what they mean.
USDA ORGANIC – hens cannot be caged and must have outdoor access, and be fed an allvegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, however beak cutting is permitted.
AMERICAN HUMANE CERTIFIED – hens can be confined in cages or cage-free. Beak cutting is allowed.
ANIMAL WELFARE APPROVED – must be from flocks of no more than 500, and spend their adult lives outside. No beak cutting.
CERTIFIED HUMANE – hens cannot be caged, but may still be kept inside. Beak cutting allowed.
UNITED EGG PRODUCERS CERTIFIED – meets minimum industry standards which routinely permit cruel and inhumane practices.
RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS – Routine use of antibiotics is illegal, but they are often used on sick birds. If given antibiotics at anytime, this claim cannot be used.
CAGE FREE – usually means hens are raised in barns or warehouses. They may not have access to the outdoors, but usually have 2-3 times more space than caged hens.
FREE RANGE – hens have some outdoor access, but there is no way to know how much or what kind.
PASTURED OR PASTURE RAISED – hens must have some foraging time outdoors.
Of course, the easiest way to avoid having to determine whether you’re purchasing eggs from inhumane farms is to raise your own chickens. Many people, even those in urban neighborhoods, are keeping chickens in backyard coops. BackyardChickens.com is a great place to start for info on how to take the plunge.
To Learn More:
Nutrition Action, “Walking on Eggshells” by David Schardt, November 2010; Center for Science in the Public Interest, http://www.cspinet.org/nah/