I was in the grocery store, befuddled. It was the eggs. I’d like to be conscious about animal welfare, but at the same time, I don’t prefer to pay good money for empty gestures. “Free Range”, “Cage Free”, “Organic”, and so on – do these actually mean anything? It turns out, after some quick internet research, that they don’t mean much in terms of animal welfare.
Just for context, let’s review the standard method of egg production (in the United States). Egg producers get chickens from hatcheries. These hatcheries consider male chicks to be an undesirable byproduct since they’re too small, hence uneconomical, to raise as food. The chicks are dumped into a grinder, gassed, or sucked through a vacuum system onto an electrified plate. After this, since chickens can get pretty rough when they’re closely confined, pecking at each other, sometimes to death, the chickens get their beaks clipped. It’s not clear how painful this is to the chicken, but the beak is thought to be a sensory organ of some use to the chicken. In the henhouse, chickens are then caged for the duration of their life. Caged birds cannot perform many of their natural actions and can become weak through lack of exercise and excessive egg production. All birds, caged or not, will eventually produce fewer eggs. When this happens, food can be withheld for up to 14 days to induce a molt, after which egg production picks up again (this practice is becoming less common). All birds eventually stop laying eggs at an economical rate – this happens after just 1-2 years (as compared to their natural life span of 5-8 years). When this happens, the chickens are destined to slaughter, with no great care to their wellbeing as they’re removed from the cage and transported to the slaughterhouse. Bones can break as the weakened bones are caught in the cages. Once at the slaughter house, the birds are put into a conveyor system in which they’re shackled by the feet upside down, sent through an electrified water bath (in the hopes of rendering then unconscious, although this regularly fails), past an automated blade that cuts their throat (the blade sometimes misses), and into a tank of scalding water.
This description is necessarily brief. You can read more from the humane society here and see the industry counterpoint here. The industry does make the important point that production conditions can vary from farm to farm and that it is important to visit egg production facilities to see for yourself (which I haven’t done).
So regarding egg carton labeling (read more here):
- Most egg producers conform to the United Egg Producer guidelines, which are better than nothing, but are not particularly inspiring. They make the process described above a bit less brutal. Starvation molting is prohibited.
- Organic eggs are subject to enforceable regulations. The birds are uncaged (which may not be better than caged – even the United Egg Producers make this claim) and have “access to the outdoors”, which can mean no more than a large henhouse with a small opening to an outdoor porch that few birds ever find. To be fair, most Organic producers probably strive to do better than this. Starvation molting is not allowed.
- There are a few third-party verification systems – some lax, others stringent, and none of which I’ve ever seen in stores, so they’re not too relevant to my decision-making.
- All the rest of the terms have no official definition and are not regulated, meaning that they pretty much mean nothing if you haven’t visited the farm to see for yourself. Caveat emptor. “Cage free” can mean that the chickens are all crowded together on the henhouse floor – not caged, but not great. “Free-range” can mean that there is no more than a small opening in the henhouse to permit outdoor access. “Fertile” probably means that the chickens were free to roam enough to find themselves a rooster.
What does this mean for me? I’ll probably go for Organic eggs. There is some attention to animal welfare and there are other advantages in terms of what the chickens can eat. I’ll avoid any of the unenforceable labels – I don’t want to give my money away for nothing. Given that the Organic label still doesn’t mean all that much, I’ll reduce my consumption of eggs as much as is reasonable, but eggs are pretty darn nutritious, so I don’t think I can cut them completely. I should advocate for better Organic standards on the outdoor access, but to be honest I don’t know how to go about it. This stuff is difficult!