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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.

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Natural is a USDA term meaning no extra ingredients or colorants are added, and indicates nothing about the bird's life.

Chemical-free is a term that USDA prohibits.

Free-range applies only to meat birds, and means they have an unspecified amount of access to an outdoor area of unspecified size and quality. In the context of eggs, "free-range" has no meaning.

100% vegetarian doesn't mean the chickens are vegetarian, it means the birds' grain is free of animal products. Chickens will eat insects, worms, and any other form of meat they can, if given the chance. And if they're allowed outside they will.

United Egg Producer Certified could be called "Certified Factory Farm." Each chicken is guaranteed 67 square-inches of cage space (a typical 8.5 x 11 inch piece of paper, by comparison, is 93.5 square-inches).

Humanely Raised, a National Chicken Council label for meat birds, assumes anything short of waterboarding is humane. The chickens can be crowded into dim warehouses with under a square foot per bird.

Certified Humane, American Humane Association Certified, and Animal Welfare Approved are all third-party certifiers with no links to industry that do an earnest and thorough job at protecting the well-being of meat birds and layers. Flock density is considered in terms of square feet per bird rather than birds per square foot. Of these, Animal Welfare Approved probably guarantees the happiest chickens.

In 2008 California passed Proposition 2, which bans egg production from caged hens. A similar law was passed in the European Union. Many California egg factories are considering moves to more cruelty-friendly states -- Nevada, Idaho and Georgia are all wooing them -- but Leslie Kline thinks it's only a matter of time until the cage ban goes nationwide. Meanwhile, those "barn roaming" meat birds are still roaming the concrete floors of Pennsylvania warehouses. For a factory farm, Bell & Evans has established baseline living conditions that are relatively stress-free and arguably humane. The feed is domestically grown and free of hexane-extracted soy. Consumer Reports named Bell & Evans chickens some of the cleanest in the industry. For a factory-farmed bird, those barn-roamers may be as good as it gets.

Instead of wading though this ever-widening pool of labels, chicken and egg buyers would be better served by a much shorter list of the basic criteria upon which the myriad labels are derived.

  • How much access to green forage do they have? Are beaks trimmed?
  • Are layers starvation molted?
  • How many square-feet per bird (or birds per square feet)?
  • Are they fed organic grain?
  • Are they given antibiotics?
  • Is there a rooster in the flock?
  • Are layers cage-free?

This list could be organized along the same lines as the USDA daily requirements for nutrients. Instead of trying to decipher the growing list of toothless terms, consumers could base their decisions on the basic criteria upon which the many labels are presumably based.

But if you want really want a guarantee of bug-eating chickens that roost in the proverbial red barn with peeling paint -- or the eggs from such birds -- you won't find them at Whole Foods or almost any other supermarket. Try the farmers market, your local co-op, or seek out family farmers in your area.

Ari LeVaux writes a syndicated weekly food column, Flash in the Pan.

 
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