A Brief Guide to Egg Carton Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare
The vast number of consumer labels affixed to egg cartons can leave a shopper feeling as dazed and confused as a laying hen trapped in a battery cage. One carton may label its eggs "Natural." Another carton may call them "Free Range," while yet another may claim its eggs are "Certified Organic." How are thoughtful consumers supposed to know what these labels and claims really mean?
The truth is that the majority of egg labels have little relevance to animal welfare or, if they do, they have no official standards nor any mechanism to enforce them. Only three labels listed below are programs with official, audited guidelines, but even those vary widely in terms of animal welfare. Those three are marked with an asterisk (*).
Certified Organic*: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access (although there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing birds meaningful access to the outdoors). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
Free-Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of "free-range" for some poultry products, there are no standards in "free-range" egg production. Typically, free-range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. However, there is no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Certified Humane*: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.
Cage-Free: As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as "cage-free" are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting, and spreading their wings. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Free-Roaming: Also known as "free-range," the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in "free-roaming" egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage-free. There is no third-party auditing.
United Egg Producers Certified*: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. By 2008, hens laying these eggs will be afforded 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.
Vegetarian-Fed: These birds are provided a more natural feed than that received by most laying hens, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.
Natural: This label has no relevance to animal welfare.
Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.
Omega-3 Enriched: This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
With nearly no federal regulations to verify animal welfare claims on egg cartons, egg producers sometimes use written claims or visual imagery on cartons that mislead consumers about how those eggs were produced. The Food and Drug Administration is currently accepting public comments on a federal rule-making petition that would require producers to fully disclose production methods on all egg cartons sold in the U.S., including the clear identification of "eggs from caged hens." Mandatory labeling on egg cartons has already been implemented throughout the European Union.
Virtually all hens in commercial egg operations—whether cage or cage-free—come from hatcheries that kill all male chicks shortly after hatching. The males are of no use to the egg industry because they don't lay eggs and aren't bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry. Common methods of killing male chicks include suffocation, gassing and grinding. Hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed at hatcheries each year in the United States.
Updated April 2, 2008
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