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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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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:

Organicmeans 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.

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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