May 30, 2024


Shopping for eggs at the grocery store can be a confusing experience. Cartons are labeled with all kinds of descriptors – natural, organic, cage-free, free-range – and some cost more at checkout. But what do they actually mean, and for ethically minded consumers, are they actually worth the money?

Protein-packed eggs are linked to relatively low carbon emissions compared with other land-based animal protein sources, but not all eggs are created equal when it comes to the environment, health or animal welfare, experts say.

“When it comes to ensuring better lives for laying hens, consumers have a lot of power, as long as they’re not led astray by meaningless labels,” said Daisy Freund, vice-president of farm animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or ASPCA.

The Guardian spoke with several experts, who explained what these egg labels mean, and how to shop in a way that balances a concern for hens with what’s good for the planet and your own wallet.

What exactly do different egg labels mean?

Grade AA, A or B

Grade AA eggs are considered the best, and have ‘thick and firm’ whites. Illustration: Olivia de Salve Villedieu/The Guardian

Consumer grades rate the interior quality of the egg yolk and white, as well as the appearance and condition of the shell. Grade AA eggs are considered the best, and have “thick and firm” whites, according to the US Department of Agriculture, or USDA, with yolks that are high, round and practically free from defects, with clean, unbroken shells. Grade A eggs are similar to Grade AA eggs but with less firm whites.

Grade B eggs tend to have thinner whites and wider yolks. Their shells are also unbroken, but may show light stains. These eggs are rarely found in retail stores because they are often used to make liquid, frozen and dried egg products.

Cage-free

Eggs labeled “USDA-grade cage-free” are from hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses. They must have access to fresh food and water, litter and protection from predators. These systems vary from farm to farm, but they must allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors and include scratch areas, perches and nests.

In the last 10 years, hundreds of companies have committed to going entirely cage-free, and the country’s cage-free egg-laying flock increased by more than 10.5m hens in the first six months of 2023.

But it’s important to remember that cage-free does not equal cruelty-free. “Cage-free means the bird lives indoors, but not in a cage,” said Carolyn Dimitri, director of NYU’s graduate food studies program. “This bird probably lives in crowded conditions.”

Hormone-free

No hormones are used in the raising of chickens. In fact, federal regulations banned their use in the 1950s, so if you see labels that say “no hormones”, it’s simply a marketing tactic and is not related to more humane treatment of hens or the health of an egg.

Certified organic

Certified organic eggs come from uncaged organic hens, which are fed organic feed free of animal byproducts, GMO crops or synthetic fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides. Regulated, certified and inspected by the USDA, organic flocks must have access to outdoor spaces and be raised without growth hormones (as all chickens, even non-organic ones, are) or antibiotics.

But the organic label hasn’t always met consumer expectations for animal welfare, since organic layer hens still often live in crowded conditions. Some producers confine their hens to barns with concrete porches instead of true outdoor space. A new rule, however, mandates indoor and outdoor space requirements, thanks to the efforts of advocacy groups. But it doesn’t go into effect until 2029, said Freund, “so in the meantime, consumers should still seek out welfare-certified options”. The Cornucopia Institute, a non-profit food and farm watchdog group, maintains a score card to help consumers decide which organic eggs are best.

Free-range

Regulated by the USDA, free-range eggs are produced by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, have access to fresh food and water and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.

Like cage-free hens, free-range hens must be allowed to exhibit natural behaviors and include scratch areas, perches and nests and have access to litter, have protection from predators and be able to move in the barn. Animal welfare advocates say free-range is a loosely defined term and since the type of outdoor space can vary, the label may fall short of shoppers’ expectations.

Certified humane

Not affiliated with the USDA, Certified Humane is a project of Humane Farm Animal Care, a third-party non-profit certification program. The Certified Humane label means the hens’ environment takes into account their welfare needs and protects them from physical and thermal discomfort, fear and distress and allows them to perform their natural behavior. No cages or aviary systems that confine birds are allowed and laying hens must be provided with nest boxes.

Pasture-raised

Hens raised entirely on pasture can eat bugs, worms and grass and have ample room to roam, scratch, dust-bathe and engage in all of their natural behaviors. Since the term “pasture-raised” has no legal definition and is not regulated by the USDA, consumers should look for eggs that have additional labels and certifications to ensure the term is not misused by producers. Once considered a luxury item, rising demand helped shrink the price gap and increase supply. Pasture-raised eggs can be richer in flavor and more nutritious than caged eggs since the hens spend time outdoors and eat a more diverse diet. When hens have access to natural forage, the need for large-scale feed production and transportation is reduced, which results in fewer emissions compared to conventional egg production.

What if a carton of eggs has none of these labels?

The majority of the 300m chickens involved in egg production in the US are still raised in long, windowless sheds in rows of stacked battery cages. These caged hens are afforded only 67 sq ins of space on average – smaller than a sheet of letter-sized paper – and denied natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust-bathing. Factory-farmed eggs are often advertised as being “natural” or using “no antibiotics ever” and their cartons can paint misleading scenes of humane treatment on idyllic farms. If these cartons are not labeled as being “cage-free”, “free-range”, “organic” or “pasture-raised”, you can assume they came from factory farm hens who are confined to such a degree that they can’t even flap their wings.

How do I eat ethically without breaking the bank?

While eggs are still one of the cheapest forms of animal protein, prices have soared in recent years, now sometimes exceeding $1 per egg. “Higher-welfare animal products sometimes do cost more because farmers are investing in better conditions and treatment, as opposed to factory farming, which relies on cruel practices and externalized costs to make a cheap product,” said Freund. Since brands commonly charge more for claims such as “humane”, “natural” and even “free-range”, which are not backed by strong definitions or on-farm audits, shoppers can be easily misled.

Experts suggest buying higher-welfare eggs like pasture-raised for special meals or reducing the number of eggs you eat each week. Another option is to supplement your diet with plant-based options. The ASPCA’s Shop with Your Heart Grocery List allows shoppers to find the lowest-cost, highest-welfare products.

How do I know what kinds of eggs restaurants are using?

The short answer is, you often don’t. While some restaurants may disclose what kinds of eggs they use for egg-centric dishes on a menu, it’s harder to know what types of eggs are featured in items such as baked goods, pastas, dressings and desserts. In 2018, Panera petitioned the FDA to know what an “egg” was exactly, stating that many of its competitors sell egg patties that contain more than five ingredients.

McDonald’s recently announced they’re using 100% cage-free eggs, and Panera has committed to sourcing 100% cage-free eggs across all products by the end of 2025. Many restaurants use frozen, refrigerated liquid and dried forms of eggs whether they’re cage-free or not. The best way to find out is to ask the restaurants you patronize, but that doesn’t always mean you’ll get a clear answer.

Are eggs from the farmers’ market automatically good?

Farmers market eggs are richer in color and taste. Illustration: Olivia de Salve Villedieu/The Guardian

Farmers’ markets can be great places to find alternatives to factory-farmed food. The yolks of farm-fresh eggs are often richer in color and taste since their food sources are of a higher quality than factory-farm chickens. Of course, not all farmers’ markets are created equal and just because a product is local doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Ask the farmer for details on how their hens are raised since not all farms raise animals the same way.

What about vegan alternatives?

For people looking for plant-based alternatives, there are a host of options. Simply Eggless’s vegan eggs are made from lupin beans and are available as a liquid, patty, bite and omelet, while Crafty Counter’s hard-boiled WunderEggs are created from cashews, almonds and other plant-based ingredients. For vegan baking, Bob’s Red Mill’s gluten-free Egg Replacer and Ener-G’s Egg Replacer are both made primarily from potato starch and tapioca flour, and Neat’s Egg Mixx is crafted from chia seeds and garbanzo beans.

While vegan eggs that mimic the look, texture and taste of real eggs tend to be more expensive than eggs from hens, many of the flour-like products that replace eggs in baking are affordable (a 16oz bag can equal around 100 eggs). Experts say it’s critical for plant-based companies to scale up production and optimize ingredients so products can be competitively priced for consumers.

The verdict: so what should I buy?

When considering animal welfare, environmental impact and health, certified-organic, pasture-raised eggs are the winner.

“The birds are able to live a free life that suits their biological needs, and they are not exposed to synthetic chemicals on the pasture or through their feed,” said NYU’s Dimitri. “This egg has the best animal-welfare and environmental lifestyle.” One study found that pasture-raised eggs had significantly more omega-3 fats and vitamin E compared to those from caged hens.

When looking solely at animal welfare, experts point to eggs from hens raised on pasture as the best option. “Shoppers should look for eggs from farms that are certified by the Animal Welfare Approved program, which requires that animals are on pasture throughout their lives, or can look for the Certified Humane seal with the words ‘pasture-raised’ on the package,” said the ASPCA’s Freund.

Even if shoppers can’t find one of these options, experts say most retail stores carry some Certified Humane products, even if they’re not pasture-raised. Those products at least ensure that animals are never in cages and are raised in enriched indoor spaces or have access to large outdoor spaces.



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