As an ovo-lacto vegetarian for the past 30 years, I thought I had mastered the lingo when it came to searching for humane alternatives at the grocery store. But when it comes to buying eggs, I need a cheat sheet. It’s pretty darn confusing. Even my very intelligent brother calls me occasionally to clarify which is better, “pasture-raised” versus “free range.”
For those of us in California, there’s a new label popping up on cartons: “California Shell Egg Food Safety Compliant.” In a groundbreaking move, California has mandated that all eggs produced or sold in the state come from hens that have enough room to flap their wings without bumping into other hens. “CA SEFS Compliant” is the seal that shows the eggs you’re buying adhere to those rules. There are many other varieties that you’ll likely see on the label. Here’s a guide to help you decode your egg carton:
These eggs come from hens whose food has been boosted with flax, algae or fish oil and contain more fatty acids. But dietitians say that if you’re looking to increase your omega-3s, you’re better off eating fish, nuts and seeds. In other words, this doesn’t mean much.
These eggs come from hens who are fed corn and soy, but no animal protein. This might sound like a good choice when buying eggs, until you consider that hens naturally eat bugs when they come across them. According to the Humane Society of the United States, hens fed a vegetarian diet means they don’t have access to the outdoors.
This label refers to eggs that come from un-caged hens that have access to the outdoors and a pesticide-free diet. Farms that use the label “USDA Organic” are checked regularly for compliance. However, access to the outdoors means simply that. Just because there’s a door in the hen house, doesn’t mean the hens are using it. Though USDA Organic eggs are still a much better option than factory farmed eggs.
CAGE –FREE AND FREE-RANGE
These are two of the most misleading labels. Cage-free doesn’t mean that hens are romping around in a spacious environment. There’s no rule as to how much space the hens get, they can be packed in as tightly as hens in cages are, which is typically eight-tenths of a square foot of space. Free-range, is not much better. Just like in the USDA Organic label, free-range eggs basically means that the hens have access to the outdoors, but it doesn’t mean they are all foraging around all day everyday. Free-range poultry has a legal definition, but when it comes to eggs, there’s none.
According to Jonathan Safran Foer, who wrote the book Eating Animals, he considers these two labels “bullshit.” Foer says: “Imagine a shed containing thirty thousand chickens, with a small door at one end that opens to a five-by-five dirt patch — and the door is closed all but occasionally.” I don’t know about you, but this isn’t what I had pictured when I thought of “free range.”
CA SEFS COMPLIANT
These eggs come from hens who have enough room to lie down, stand up, turn around, and spread their wings without touching another hen. State farm inspectors check for compliance and violations are misdemeanors.
In my opinion, if you’re an animal lover, and concerned about the welfare of chickens, these eggs are the ones to buy. In order for eggs to be labeled pasture-raised according to Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) requirements, a producer must provide 108 square feet of outdoor space per bird. “The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators, or for up to two weeks out of the year, due only to inclement weather,” the HFAC website states.
Even if you’re not a fan of our feathered friends, I would still urge you to consider choosing a humane alternative to your generic store bought egg based on health concerns. Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for The Humane Society of the United States, says studies show that rates of salmonella infection, a bacteria that can trigger food-borne illness in humans, decrease when the quality of care given the egg-laying chickens improves. And a chicken living a pasture-raised existence has a better life than its caged cousins, he says. “Those birds suffer enormously,” Shapiro says of caged birds, which lay roughly 9 out of 10 eggs we eat. That 10th egg is the so-called specialty egg, Shapiro adds, which includes free-range, CA SEF Compliant and pasture-raised. There are differences in what those terms mean, but at the very least, they represent a better life for chickens, he says.
Free-range and CA SEF Compliant eggs are good; Pasture-raised is even better; but if you are looking for the absolute best egg to buy in terms of treatment of the chickens, look for the “Animal Welfare Approved” label. Available in limited markets, it’s a new label by the Animal Welfare Institute that is given only to independent family farmers. Flocks can have no more than 500 birds, and chickens over 4 weeks old must be able to spend all their time outside on pesticide-free pasture with a variety of vegetation. They must have access to dust baths and cannot have their beaks trimmed (a practice on crowded egg farms) or be fed animal byproducts.
And if my brother is reading this, probably on his cell phone, you can take a screen shot of this cheat sheet so you have it on your camera roll when you go to the store. Though I do like hearing from you once in awhile!
FREE-RANGE – GOOD
CA SEFS COMPLIANT – BETTER
PASTURE-RAISED – BEST
ANIMAL WELFARE APPROVED – ABSOLUTE BEST (BUT HARD TO FIND)