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Landmark Deal Between Humane Society and Egg Producers: What This Means For the Eggs You're Eating

The former adversaries will jointly seek federal legislation based on their agreement to increase animal welfare standards on egg farms.

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If enacted as law, the agreement's labeling mandates would add valuable clarity and accountability where it's sorely needed. Egg cartons have always been a lawless landscape where any claims are made, few rules are enforced, and the rare labels with legal standing are usually irrelevant anyway.

"Natural," for example, says absolutely nothing about how something was produced. It only refers to the absence of additives in processing. In the case of eggs, "natural" eggs means "just eggs." The "hormone-free" egg (or chicken) label is about as meaningful as "carbon-based." No hormones are approved for use on chickens, so every legally sold egg is "hormone-free."

The Humane Society and UEP propose that cartons bear labels identifying "caged," "enhanced cages," "cage-free," or "free-range" layers. The "caged" option will be phased out, along with the practice, over the course of the 18-year transition. If enacted, these labels would be the first instance of federally mandated disclosure of farming practices, raising process to the status shared by the product's ingredients as information you have a right to know.

The four-tiered labeling system would link production practices more closely with market demand, and in doing so would train consumers to consider how chickens are raised. Just as people now recognize milk as whole, 2 percent, skim, or non-fat, they would become versed in the language of egg farming.

With milk products the choice is purely about "which fat percentage is better for me?" But the egg-agreement is framed in terms of chicken welfare. Whether noticeable differences emerge among different egg categories remains to be seen. And it's possible that science, if not the senses, will be able to discern different levels of hormones, cholesterol and other biomolecules.

Of course, the best factory farmed eggs are still far from being the best eggs. If you want to see a big difference in quality, seek eggs from pastured chickens. "Pastured" means the birds spend most of their time outside, scratching in the dirt, having dust baths, eating plants and bugs, and all that good chicken stuff. By comparison, the highest category in the proposed agreement, "free-range," means only that the birds have "access to the outdoors," which often means nothing more than a small dirt patch. Organic eggs will also be noticeably better tasting, as will eggs that are uncertified but organic at heart, if you can spot them. Here's a clue: They're the ones with the kid-drawn rainbow on the label.

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

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