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April 28, 2014 by APRIL McCARTHY
How Much Do Labels Really Tell You About How Eggs Are Produced?

There is no doubt that consumer awareness and concern about the lives led by animals raised for food is on the rise. Ethical concerns are playing an increasingly important role in purchasing decisions. It seems that egg producers -- perhaps more than any other -- have responded to this trend by adding an abundance of confusing claims on egg cartons.

Battery Hen Sheds Are House Some of The Worst Abused Hens

With little consistency or legally enforceable definitions for egg production systems, it's not easy to understand what the various logos and terms on packaging mean. It difficult to demystify egg production systems in no-nonsense terms to help make truly informed and kinder choices.

While it's true that egg yolks have a lot of cholesterol--they weakly affect blood cholesterol levels. Nutritionist Dr Carrie Ruxton has challenged studies vilifying egg yolks as a contributor to coronary artery disease. Eggs also contain nutrients that may help lower the risk for heart disease, including protein, vitamins B12 and D, riboflavin, and folate.

Free-range or “pastured” organic eggs are far superior when it comes to nutrient content, and , testing has confirmed that true free-range eggs are far more nutritious than commercially raised eggs. In a 2007 egg-testing project, Mother Earth News compared the official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs with eggs from hens raised on pasture and found that the latter typically contains:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene

The dramatically superior nutrient levels are most likely the result of the differences in diet between free ranging, pastured hens and commercially farmed hens.

Current demand for eggs can only be met by factory farming. But this demand never would have existed if people knew the truth about how animals are being treated. Now that you know, the power is in your hands. Refusing factory farmed products is an important first step. Every person who replaces some or all of the eggs they eat with animal-friendly alternatives helps reduce the demand that has forced animals to be so intensively farmed, bringing hens a step closer to a world without factory farming.

Cage Barn laid Certified free range Certified Organic
Are hens confined in cages? YES NO NO NO
Are hens provided with a nest/perch? NO YES YES YES
Do hens have space to flap their wings/exercise? NO YES (restricted) YES YES
Do hens have access to an outdoor range? NO NO YES YES
Are hens allowed to be 'debeaked'? YES YES MAYBE
(depends on certification body)
Are male chicks killed at birth?** YES YES YES YES
Are hens sent to slaughter from 18 months old?** YES YES YES YES

**Ethical concerns in all egg laying systems

It is important that consumers are aware that there are ethical and welfare issues common to all egg production systems -- including free-range and organic.

All egg systems are faced with a universal 'problem' when it comes to the hatching of chicks raised for egg laying. Since only female chickens lay eggs, male chicks who have no commercial value to the egg industry are routinely gassed or 'macerated' (ground up alive). As a result, every year some 12 million male chicks are killed in the first day of their lives as waste products of the egg industry.

Another common concern is the slaughter of layer hens years short of their natural life span. Hens will naturally live for around 10 years, but most layer hens are sent to slaughter as soon as they exceed their productive 'use by date'. In all egg production systems, from cage to free range, hens are considered 'spent' from just 18 months old. Occasionally however, if it's deemed commercially viable, hens in free-range systems will be kept on for another season which would extend their life for around 12 months -- still well short of what nature intended.

1 'Free Range'

Unfortunately, there is no legal definition of the term free range in Australia so standards between free range egg farms can vary dramatically. The biggest difference between free range farms is the number of birds kept in a certain space. While 1,500 birds per hectare is the recommended maximum, this is not enforceable and large scale producers are keeping their hens at much higher densities to cash in on the growing market for free range products. Queensland is the only state that has legislated a maximum of 1,500 hens per hectare. These logos on the egg carton indicate the eggs have come from hens raised on a true free range farm.

2 'Organic'

Certified organic eggs come from hens kept on farms which meet and exceed standards of the best free range facilities. However, simply the word 'organic' on an egg carton can sometimes mislead people to think the welfare of hens meets certified organic standards -- when it may merely mean that hens in barns are fed organic grains. These logos on the egg carton indicate that the hens are raised on a certified organic farm.

3 'Barn Laid'

Hens in barn laid housing systems are not confined in cages so in theory they can move around. However, high stocking densities restrict hens' ability to move freely and exercise. Being confined indoors restricts hens' ability to perform the normal behaviours that provide quality of life.

Other claims on egg cartons

There are many other marketing terms used on egg cartons to imply higher welfare. These labels should be read discerningly. Terms such as 'Vegetarian', 'Eco eggs' and 'Omega 3 eggs' for example are not recognised descriptors that define the type of housing system or a level of welfare for hens. The term 'Cage-free' is also regularly used but it is important to note that these hens are raised in barns and do not have access to the outdoors. Likewise, don't be fooled by clever imagery -- some cartons may depict birds sitting on nests, or green rolling fields, but unless accompanied by an accreditation label, these images are most likely to be inaccurate.


April McCarthy is a community journalist playing an active role reporting and analyzing world events to advance our health and eco-friendly initiatives.

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