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Where To Find Really Healthy Eggs and Poultry (It's Not at Whole Foods)

Most labels on poultry and eggs mean whatever the producer or vendor decides. Here's how to figure out what's what.

Whole Foods describes its non-organic chicken, produced in Pennsylvania by Bell & Evans, as "barn roaming." The term has a nostalgic feel to it, invoking images of happy chickens pecking around a red barn with peeling paint.

According to a Bell & Evans representative, the company doesn't use "barn roaming" to describe its chickens, so I asked Whole Foods what it meant. A representative told me, "There is currently no clear regulatory definition of the term 'barn roaming.' We expect our suppliers who use this claim on their products to use a reasonable definition and we expect the claim to be truthful."

Consumers should also expect a reasonable and truthful definition of the labels on our food, but unfortunately the number of loosely defined or undefined marketing terms used for poultry and eggs dwarfs the number of legal terms. "Happy chickens," "ethical eggs," "pasture raised," "naturally nested," "wild hens," and "free roaming" are some examples of labels that mean whatever the producer or vendor decides.

"Barn roaming" sounds a lot like "cage-free," meaning the birds are locked together in a barn instead of individually in cages. But chickens grown for meat are never raised in cages, even at the worst factory farms. This doesn't stop Perdue from labeling its meat "raised cage-free."

A similar bit of marketing malpractice is the claim that chickens are "hormone-free*." The asterisk, mandated by USDA to accompany such claims, calls out a footnote explaining that no hormones are USDA-approved for chicken. Since no eggs or meat from hormonal chickens is legal, the hormone-free claim is no more useful than claiming that chickens don't eat radioactive waste.

Leslie Kline owns Good Egg Farm in western Montana. Her eggs, packaged in reused cartons with her label affixed, show an American flag's worth of red, white and blue hues. Her chickens have access to a rotating series of lush green pastures full of plants and bugs, and spend their days scratching and pecking.

Kline's label makes the "happy chickens" claim. She admits this is difficult to verify without subjecting her birds to a psychological evaluation, but feels justified because she loves her birds and does everything possible to ensure their happiness.

Despite her birds' constant access to pasture, Leslie doesn't use "pastured" to describe their eggs, "because when they step out their door in the morning they are on bare dirt, and have to make the effort, which not all of them do, to find the pasture. Many of them choose to spend the majority of their time on the dirt part. Pastured to me means that the coops themselves are frequently moved to fresh areas with green stuff, so when they get up in the morning they arrive on grass." But Charlotte Vallaeys of the organic food watchdog group Cornucopia believes Kline is being too hard on herself. "There is no legal definition [for pastured eggs], as with most labels for eggs other than organic. However, I do not agree that it wouldn't be accurate to call [Kline's eggs] pastured... many people do use that term if they let their chickens out on pasture."

When asked for her best guess at what "barn roaming" means, she assumed it meant "free range." Her assumption was based on the fact that free-range, according to USDA, actually means "stuck in a building with occasional access to the outside." Among the many ill-defined poultry and egg labels is a short list of terms that have specific, legal meanings:

Organic means they're fed organic grain free of animal products, have access to a rooster (or vice-versa, if you've ever witnessed chicken sex), and have unspecified access to unspecified outdoor conditions. Beak trimming, in which the point of the beak is cut off so the chickens won't peck each other, is permitted. If done properly, beak trimming won't prevent chickens from hunting in the dirt, but if the chickens are given enough personal space, like Leslie Kline's birds, there won't be a pecking problem.

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