I’m overjoyed that you’re reading this post! Each time you buy humanely raised eggs, you’re improving the lives of countless hens by leaps and bounds. Plus, you’re advancing the cause of cruelty-free animal care. Your choices fuel the momentum!
The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that over 90 percent of our eggs come from caged chickens. Such birds must endure horrendous living conditions. Fortunately, the market for humanely sourced eggs is expanding, thanks to consumers like you.
This article covers five types of humanitarian egg production. You’ll also learn about misleading statements on egg cartons, falsely implying decent hen care. Some claims have no basis! Here’s how to tell trustworthy egg suppliers from shady operations.
Conventional Egg Farms
With traditional hen housing, each bird lives in a cage measuring 8½ x 11 inches. Picture a sheet of letter-sized paper. That’s the tight space allotted to an innocent chicken, laboring to give us nutritious eggs.
As you can see, there’s barely enough room for the hens to lean forward, much less turn around. This is the average cage system — a “factory farm.”
Some producers starve their hens for five to 14 days, causing massive feather loss. This brutal practice, called “forced molting,” manipulates hens into laying faster. It also unnaturally lengthens their egg-producing cycle, leaving the birds exhausted.
Alternative Egg Farms
This term means the birds can walk freely through their henhouse and lay their eggs in nests. The hens have unlimited access to fresh water and food. They can also “roost,” perching on metal pipes or wooden beams. Such socializing promotes the birds’ well-being.
So does the habit of “dust bathing.” While it sounds unsanitary, chickens do this to clean their feathers. Typically, they use granular material from the ground, such as dirt or sand. First, they tap the soil with their wingtips. Next, by spreading their wings, the granules coat their backs. Then, they flap around on the ground.
By dust bathing, chickens keep their feathers bug-free and pristine. Hens love to dust bathe in groups. Here’s an amusing clip of pretty chickens intent on cleanliness:
Cage-free operations are overseen by the USDA and a few humanitarian organizations. Each authority certifies farms meeting its particular standards. Qualified retailers then display the certifying label on their egg cartons.
One highly-regarded nonprofit is Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). It requires each hen to have 1.5 square feet of free space, along with perches and litter for dust bathing.
HFAC further stipulates that henhouses can’t smell of urinary ammonia. More precisely, the ammonia levels can’t exceed 10ppm. Farms complying with HFAC rules and inspections receive its “Certified Humane” label, pictured here.
United Egg Producers (UEP) certifies farms where the hens roam freely in barns. Here’s the UEP label.
You’ll find cage-free eggs at most supermarkets.
Cage-free hens can’t go outdoors.
The USDA doesn’t mandate a certain amount of space for each hen. On some farms, the henhouses are small and severely cramped. Even certified facilities may skimp on hen space. Under such confinement, the birds compete for room to drink, roost, and eat.
Sometimes, hens driven mad by overcrowding attack each other to the point of death.
Are you picturing wide open space? That’s a logical assumption. Actually, hens on free-range farms have varying degrees of liberty. While farmhands provide chicken feed, the birds can also “forage,” reverting to their natural diet of bugs and wild plants.
Hens who roam outdoors engage in their normal fun activities, such as roosting, foraging, flying, and dust bathing. Therefore, free-range hens aren’t likely to peck each other.
To pass USDA certification, egg producers must give their hens outdoor access.
At farms with Certified Humane status, the hens have at least two square feet of outdoor space. Furthermore, they have outdoor access for a minimum of six hours daily.
Studies show that, compared to conventional eggs, free-range eggs have more beta-carotene. This is the pigment that colors certain fruits and vegetables orange or red.
Beta-carotene is a compound your body uses to make Vitamin A. This nutrient fosters the health of your immune system, skin, and eyes.
Most supermarkets sell free-range eggs.
Unethical farmers discourage hens from going outside by installing puny doors or windows. Or, they open barn doors for just a few hours. Some immoral producers cut corners by letting only part of their flock outside.
Per USDA certification standards, “outdoor access” can be a small patch of fenced cement! Plus, egg retailers can display a free-range label on their cartons without being certified. In that case, the outdoor space can be especially meager. It may also be paved, bare of vegetation. Even certification doesn’t guarantee that hen-raising facilities are clean and well-kept.
Moreover, at free-range farms, the housing can be small and overcrowded. Cramped hens may not even budge when a farmer cracks open a door or window.
3. Certified Organic
At these egg farms, the hens eat only organic vegetarian feed. Such food cannot be grown with the use of synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. Crops for feed must be cultivated by USDA-approved methods that promote ecological safety and resource conservation. Also, feed crops cannot be genetically altered or treated with radiation to kill insects.
While organically raised hens cannot receive hormones, farmers can give them antibiotics for infections.
The USDA conducts organic farm inspections, certification, and labeling. There are several requirements. First, hens must be cage-free. All the birds must have outdoor access, and forced molting is prohibited. Farmers must provide fenced outdoor pens, protecting their hens and eggs from predatory animals.
Here’s a photo of the USDA Organic Seal, displayed by approved retailers on their egg cartons.
Organic certification doesn’t guarantee the hens actually go outside. Nor does it ensure they have generous living space. In fact, the birds can be crowded in henhouses under artificial light. While you can trust the organic eggs are healthy, you don’t know if the hens were treated well.
Among all types of humanely sourced eggs, this is the gold standard! Also called “pastured eggs,” they come from hens spending idyllic days in woods and fields. During the day, the birds forage and dust bathe. Come evening, they return to their barn or henhouse to roost and lay eggs.
Pastured hens follow their instincts, eating plants and insects. Thus, farmers must maintain their outdoor food supply by rotating field access. Furthermore, they supplement the hens’ natural diet with healthy feed. Generally, the need for antibiotics is rare due to the airy setting and meticulous animal care.
Most pastured hens live on family-run farms, their eggs primarily sold at farmers markets. So, you won’t likely see these eggs in grocery stores.
Pastured eggs don’t come under USDA scrutiny. That’s because the farms encompass too many variables, making government oversight impractical. Fortunately, two well-established nonprofits offer pasture-raised certification.
One watchdog organization is Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). To qualify, farmers give each hen an outdoor activity radius of 108 square feet. Likewise, they provide ample indoor space. Barns must ensure 1.5 square feet per hen, with at least 6 inches of perching distance between chickens. Furthermore, the birds must be outdoors for at least six hours daily, weather permitting.
Eggs meeting these criteria can display the Certified Humane Seal from HFAC.
Animal Welfare Approved
The second certifying nonprofit is the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI). Its standards are more stringent than HFAC. For starters, each pastured hen must receive 1.8 square feet of indoor space versus the 1.5 square feet required by HFAC. Farmers must furnish henhouses or barns with abundant perches and nesting boxes.
Another mandate is constant outdoor access. Pasture must ensure at least 4 square feet of vegetation per hen.
Mercifully, AWI forbids forced molting. It also outlaws beak trimming. This practice is common in the egg production industry, intended to curb pecking among crowded hens. For AWI approval, feed must be vegetarian. Additionally, flocks cannot exceed 500 hens.
Farms that pass rigorous inspection are “Animal Welfare Approved,” qualified to display this seal.
In 2007 and 2010, scientists compared the nutrition of pastured eggs to conventional eggs. Analysis showed that pastured eggs have less cholesterol and saturated fat. They’re also higher in Vitamins A, B9, D, C, E, omega-3 fatty acids, and beta-carotene.
5. No Antibiotics
Absent Drug Residues
Buying eggs labeled “No Antibiotics” benefits the world at large. Still, this label is confusing. US law requires that all eggs sold in this country are free of antibiotic residues.
Legally, US farmers can treat their hens with antibiotics to counter infections and prevent their spread. Yet, they can only use medicines approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Moreover, after treatment, a hen must undergo a drug-withdrawal period. Meanwhile, their eggs can’t be sold until drug testing shows no trace of antibiotic in the hen’s body fluids.
Hence, the term “No Antibiotics” means the hens didn’t receive such medications during their egg-laying cycles. Even so, there’s no scientific evidence that antibiotic residues cause direct human harm.
However, antibiotics become useless when used too often. This occurs when targeted bacteria become immune to the drugs, called “antibiotic resistance.” Since the germs continue thriving, scientists must formulate new antibiotics.
With some bacteria, researchers never make effective drug replacements. This failure leads to antibiotic-resistant infections, killing people worldwide. According to current US statistics, over 35,000 people die of antibiotic-resistant infections each year.
How can we stop this threat to our health? The answer is preventing antibiotic overuse. So, when you buy eggs labeled “No Antibiotics,” you’re helping to stem the tide of deadly infections!
Solely Dietary Terms
The following claims on egg cartons don’t address humane animal care. They only specify the food hens receive and its possible nutritional effect on their eggs.
I’m discussing these terms since they can be misleading, implying the eggs come from pampered hens. Still, the proof of decent care is a certified seal on an egg carton, such as “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved.”
If the abbreviation “GMO” is unfamiliar, it stands for genetically modified organism. This term means a plant, microbe, or animal whose genes were scientifically altered in a lab. Currently, it’s unclear whether GMOs can harm our health. To date, most research suggests the chances are slim. Still, additional studies are required to eliminate the possibility.
Eggs labeled “Non-GMO” come from hens whose feed is GMO-free. Still, this fact has no bearing on humane hen care.
2. Omega-3 Enriched
This claim isn’t regulated. It means the hens ate feed supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids. Yet, no health authorities analyze eggs for their omega-3 content. Hence, there’s no guarantee they’re higher in this healthy fat than other eggs.
Furthermore, omega-3 enrichment doesn’t reflect upstanding hen care.
Here’s another unsubstantiated term. Even so, limiting hens to plant foods goes against their instinctive diet of wild seeds, grasses, and insects. Generally, strictly vegetarian hens are neither free-range nor pastured.
In the US, it’s illegal for farmers to give poultry hormones. Thus, all eggs are hormone-free.
Fertile eggs come from the mating of a hen and rooster. According to the USDA, fertile eggs have no nutritional advantage over unfertilized eggs.
Other Worthless Terms
Also irrelevant are the terms “Farm-Fresh” and “All-Natural.” Such words are loosely defined. Furthermore, they’re not regulated by any government agencies, independent nonprofits, or the food industry.
In large part, your choice of humanely raised eggs depends on what’s available to you and what you can afford. Still, here are the levels of ethical hen care, from the most cruelty-free to the least:
Eggs labeled “No Antibiotics” promote both animal and human welfare indirectly. Farmers who shun antibiotics protect their hens from infections through other proven means. Examples are ensuring airy indoor quarters, clean nesting materials, and healthy diets. Meanwhile, by not using such drugs, farmers can reduce antibiotic resistance, helping to save lives.
One confirmation of decent hen care is a certified seal on an egg carton. In the US, the most well-known logos are Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane, and USDA Certified Organic. Less widespread are UEP Certified Cage-Free, UEP Certified, and American Humane Certified. You can learn more about these labels here.
Another way to gauge farm integrity is by visiting a producer’s website, provided they have one. So, before buying a certain brand of eggs, look up the farm’s hen handling practices. For instance, see this site run by the company Pete and Gerry’s.
If the retailer doesn’t have a website, it’s hard to know if they’re trustworthy.
Do you have a farmers market nearby? If so, while visiting, ask the egg sellers about their hen care policies. Farmers who treat their hens kindly take pride in sharing their handling methods and standards.
Dietary claims on egg cartons don’t address animal rights. Within this category are the terms Non-GMO, Omega-3 Enriched, and Vegetarian-Fed.
Fertile eggs have no nutritional edge over those unfertilized. Since the 1950s, the FDA has banned hormone use in poultry. Hence, the label “No Hormones” has no basis. Lastly, the terms “Farm-Fresh” and “All-Natural” are loosely defined and not regulated.
Pastured hens are happiest! If their eggs aren’t available where you live, consider free-range, certified organic, or cage-free. Also ethical, though indirectly, are eggs labeled “No Antibiotics.”
For a glimpse of cherished hens, watch this video of a top-notch, free-range farm.
All hens deserve respectable care!