When I was growing up, I only remember a couple kinds of eggs being available at the grocery store: Grade A Large and Grade A Extra Large, brown or white. Those were basically the only choices. Now with consumers being more concerned with how their meat and dairy products were raised, there are many more options in the dairy aisle. Have you ever wondered what the actual difference is between pasture-raised, free-range, and cage-free eggs or even assumed they are the same thing? Or have you ever felt kind of guilty about buying the regular eggs when the free-range eggs are right next to them but $2 more expensive? I definitely have, so I did some research. Here’s a quick guide:
Battery cages are what most chickens produced in the U.S. are kept in. It’s basically like spending your whole life in an overcrowded jail cell where nobody ever changes out the latrine bucket. Ick. According to the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, for many chickens raised in these conditions, “their beaks have been cut off so that the stress of being in uncomfortable living conditions doesn’t lead to pecking their fellows to death.” If you buy eggs that aren’t labeled pasture-raised/cage-free/free-range or eat eggs from a restaurant where the egg type isn’t specified, you’re almost sure to be eating eggs raised in this environment.
Take away the cages and you would think life would be great for these birds. However, cage-free really just means the chickens just have the ability to roam around a larger enclosed structure like a giant warehouse that holds thousands of birds. At least then they can literally spread their wings, make nests, etc. But see the light of day during their lifetime? Not so much… This looks like a red-line Metro platform during a rush-hour delay!
Free-range is really a deceptive description when it comes to poultry. If you’re picturing Charlotte the chicken clucking around a wide open field each day and Farmer Frank gently guiding her back into the coop at night, you’re about to have your bubble burst. In order for a poultry product to be labeled Free-Range, the UDSA only requires that “poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Often this still means a HUGE warehouse of thousands of chickens, with one little access door, or a high-up strip of windows. But since they are overcrowded chickens, and not National Geographic explorers, they’re not likely find the outside access door especially if it’s not near their food and water source.
In a utopia, all chickens would be raised this way. This is the Charlotte the chicken storybook picture I mentioned earlier. Some people think that eggs from this environment taste better, and while I’m not an egg connoisseur I agree with this. After all, are you more likely to turn in a fantastic report to your boss if you’re extremely stressed or relaxed and enjoying life? It’s probably the same for chickens and the product they make. Not to mention that I don’t want a chicken to lead a wretched life just so I could have my omelet. However, it can be more difficult to find pasture-raised eggs in conventional grocery stores. Also just because eggs are labeled organic, doesn’t mean they are pasture-raised. They could have been stuffed into a “free-range” warehouse and just given organic feed.
So with all that being said, it’s really not my intention to scare anyone into being a vegan. I actually really like eating eggs. My suggestion is just to be more conscious of egg labels and where your eggs come from. Know what you are comfortable buying and eating. If you want pasture-raised eggs and don’t see them available, take 2 minutes out of your week and talk to your grocery store manager. Tell them that you’d like to see more of those products on their shelves. Same thing with restaurant menus. Retailers listen to their customers — that’s how we’ve gotten this far from those days in the 80’s with 2 kinds of eggs.
If you want to learn more about this, here are some good resources:
Poultry labeling terms: www.nationalchickencouncil.org/about-the-industry/chickopedia/
Where and how to buy organic chickens: www.localharvest.org/organic-chicken.jsp
Facts about pasture-raised poultry: www.apppa.org/getting-started-in-pastured-poultry
P.S. — If you do some google image searching on this subject, be prepared for horrifying visuals. I tried to only include PG pictures.