A new law in California Proposition 2 took effect this week on Eggs and Chickens. The new law mandates that Chicken farmers must provide a cage free or modify the existing conditions so that hens have a more environmentally friendly place to lay eggs.
When you think about it what does all that labeling mean? I get confused, what does ‘Natural’, Cage Free? Organic mean? In trying to support the ‘right’ farmers, I decided to investigate the options more throughly.
I did not know this: almost all hens in commercial egg operations— no matter what the label, come from hatcheries that kill male chicks after hatching. Called Chick Culling, males are not money makers (egg laying) and are not bred to grow large. This is sad, they kill make chicks by suffocation, gassing, breaking their necks. According to Animal Planet and estimated 200 Million Chicks are killed every year. (Source)
What is important (Source)
- Space – The amount of floor space each hen receives. Caged hens typically receive the least amount of space, ranging from 67 square inches per bird (less than a letter-sized sheet of paper) to 116 square inches per bird (less than a legal-sized sheet of paper). At the other end of the spectrum, some pasture-raised hens are given more than 100 times that amount of space per animal.
- Natural behaviors – Whether the hens can perform important natural behaviors, such as foraging, walking, nesting, perching, spreading their wings and dust-bathing. Hens in battery cages can barely move an inch, let alone perform such important natural behaviors, while hens not kept in cages—and particularly those who go outdoors—can perform many if not all of these behaviors.
- Forced molting through starvation – Whether the hens are forced to molt (lose feathers) through starvation in order to manipulate the egg production cycle.
- Beak cutting – Whether the hens have had partial removal of their beaks, most commonly performed within the first few days of life, supposedly to reduce incidence of injurious pecking.
Cage-Free– I had thought, when you are purchasing Cage Free Eggs, it means exactly what it says, the Hens are NOT in a cage, but that doesn’t mean they have the room to run around. There are no mandatory 3rd party auditing, so hens are allowed to be starved, beak cut and forced molting. Generally speaking, the hens are uncaged in a barn or warehouse.
Free-Range– Generally speaking if it is labeled Free Range, the hens are uncaged in barns and may have some outdoor access. There is no government regulation regarding this, thus beak cutting and forced molting and starvation are allowed.
Free-Roaming (Same as Free Range)
Pasture-Raised– The USDA has not defined pasture raised for eggs and there is no government regulated standards required to make the claim. Supposely pasture raised eggs are kept outdoors for most of true year and herded indoors at night. Again, because there is no regulation, birds can be fed whatever, no amount of space per bird, quality of pastures,.
Certified Organic- This is generally what I buy as they are fed organic and vegetarian diets as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. The birds are uncaged in barns, required to have outdoor access. There is no definition of quality of the environment. But their is a verified third party auditing. Starvation is permitted as well as forced molting.
Vegetarian-Fed- While the hens feed do not contain animal byproducts, it has no bearing on the animal living conditions.
No Antibiotics/No Hormones — Not Regulated and if it is Certified Organic, this means nothing.
Fertile These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.
The Following Labels have no bearing on animal rights or welfare.
- Natural This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare. Marketing Ploy as eggs are all natural anyway.
- Farm Fresh This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
- Omega-3 Enriched This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare. Most likely the chickens were fed fish oil or flaxseed. There is no regulations and you have to trust the labeler.
- Pasteurized This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.
The Third-Party Certifiers and Labels
Certified Humane– You have a choice of certification. (1) regular (cage-free), (2) free range and (3) pasture-raised. Prohibited are forced molting. Beak cutting is allowed.
- Cage-free: Hens are uncaged in a building, whether they have access to the outdoors is iffy. They should be able to engage in natural behaviors. There are regulations for density, number of perches and nesting boxes.
- Free-range: The Hens must have access to the outdoors at least 6 hours a day. Each hen must be provided with 2 square feet of outdoor space.
- Pasture-raised: The Hens must be provided with a pasture at least 6 hours/day 12 months a year. The pasture must have vegetation and each bird should have 108 square feet of pasture. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.
Animal Welfare Approved- This has the highest animal welfare standards and is 3rd party audited. Unfortunately they only cover farms of less than 500 hens. The birds are cage free, with 1.8 square feet of space per bird. In addition, birds have continuous access to outdoor space and allowed to all natural behaviors. Forced molting through starvation and beak cutting are prohibited, as is feed containing meat or animal byproducts. Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the Animal Welfare Institute.
American Humane Certified – Four levels of certification: (1) enriched colony cages, (2) cage-free, (3) free-range and (4) pasture. Forced molting prohibited and beak cutting allowed.
- Colony cages: each animal who is confined in these so-called “furnished cages” has 0.8 square feet (less than a sheet of paper). There are some requirements for perching and nesting boxes.
- Cage-free: Hens are kept uncaged inside barns but may be kept indoors at all times. Each hen must be provided with 1.25 square feet of floor space, as well as access to perches and nesting boxes.
- Free-range: each hen must be provided with 21.8 square feet of outdoor space. There is no time requirement of outdoor space time.
- Pasture: Hens must have with 108 square feet of outdoor space on a pasture with a vegetation. There is not time requirements. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. American Humane Certified is a program of American Humane Association.
United Egg Producers Certified “Animal Care Certified”]: You may think this is the top of the line in certifications. NOT. This is a voluntary program which the majority of the US Egg Industry complies with. But it allows for cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. The practices include a 67 square inch of cage space per bird (1 sheet of paper). The Hens cannot perch, nest, forage or stretch their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.
Food Alliance Certified- The Hens are cage-free and must be provided with at least 1.23 square feet of floor space per bird. Access to outdoors or natural daylight is required for at least eight hours per day. If there is outdoor access, it must have venation. There are specific requirements for perches and nesting boxes.
Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. No meat or animal byproducts are permitted in feed. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
It is confusing to decide and it most likely a personal decision, based upon where you shop, what is important to you. In the best of world, we could all have our own chickens, but sadly most of us cannot.