For those of us who have become aware of the cruelty of the meat, dairy and egg industry it can be tricky to navigate labels that want you to believe their product is more humane than conventional methods. In this post I will share what those labels really mean and if you do choose to eat animal products which ones are the least cruel and the most sustainable.
Straight up conventional “Grade A” eggs are from factories that have little to no regulation on the humane treatment of the chickens. They are typically crammed in cages, are sickly, go through a process of de-beaking (so they don’t compulsively peck each other in their cramped conditions). They never see sunlight or have access to any of their natural behaviors like roosting, making nests or scratching in the dirt. These eggs and meat products are sold to large grocery store chains, suppliers for fast food companies and restaurants. They are fed mostly a diet of GMO corn and soy and in some cases other dead animals.
The term natural is nothing but a misleading label put on packaging to make people feel better about what they are buying. It has no FDA regulation or certification regarding quality, living conditions, what the animals are fed or how they are slaughtered. Products that have the term “natural” or “all-natural” may still contain artificial ingredients, GMO ingredients (or in the case of animal products the feed can contain GMOs) pesticides, growth hormones and chemical flavoring.
Free-Range and Cage Free
Free-Range or cage free isn’t really much better. In these operations the birds are instead put into large covered sheds mostly without sunlight or access to fresh air or outdoors. Sure they are “free” to roam around but there are usually so many of them in one area that there isn’t really anywhere to go. The conditions are far from ideal with tons of animal waste and even dead bodies of other birds who have died and not been removed. Many birds that are grown for meat are given hormones or genetically altered to the point that their breasts are so large they are deformed and can barely walk so they are often on the floor in their own waste. Unless the label says non-GMO feed or hormone or anti-biotic free, you can pretty much guarantee that’s what they are eating and being injected with.
Organic eggs and meat means that the animals where given an organic diet which excludes the use of hormones, antibiotics and genetically modified feed. This is a step in the right direction but it doesn’t really have anything to do with how the animals live. Organically produced meat and eggs can still be in cages or in large sunless sheds where animals are crammed together in unnatural conditions.
Pasture Raised & Pasture Raised Organic
Pasture raised is by far the most humane practice for laying hens because they are actually able to go outdoors and scratch the ground for bugs and grubs like normal chickens. They get to feel sunlight and are typically given roosting areas to lay eggs but they are not confined to them. If you do eat eggs, organic pasture raised is the least cruel and most healthful since the birds are given a GMO-free diet and are usually raised by people who get what “natural” and “sustainable” really means.
Keep in mind that just about all these animal raising practices kill or “throw away” male chicks because they are considered less useful (or profitable) than hens. Some small farms keep a few roosters, and some use them for food, but many compassionate folks don’t want to buy eggs knowing that chickens on the same farms are also being killed for meat. If you enjoy shopping locally you can go to a farmers market and talk to the people selling eggs and ask them about how they are raised and if they use the birds for meat or just to lay eggs, and what is done with the males. It is always a good idea to know where your food is coming from and if possible, visit a local farm and see for yourself.
Raising Your Own or Enjoying Vegan “Eggs”
If you don’t want to support these methods you can always try raising your own chickens if you have the space. They can be very tame and loving if handled when young and even sit in your lap and enjoy being pet like your dog or cat! And of course you can always choose not to eat eggs and have peace of mind with your food choices. There are many alternatives for eggs, such as flax meal “egg” for baking (1/2 cup water whisked with 4 tbs flax meal), tofu scrambles, and even chickpea flour omelettes!