If you, like me, have puzzled over the many labels on egg cartons — natural, organic, cage-free, pastured, free range — you might want to read my story about the egg industry that was published yesterday in the Guardian.
It’s fundamentally a story about how animal-welfare groups, led by the Humane Society of the United States, have used the power of ballot initiatives and market pressures to begin to transform the way hens are treated in the US. This is a big victory for the animal-welfare movement.
Here’s how it begins:
Americans eat about 265 eggs per person per year, according to the American Egg Board, and roughly nine in 10 are laid by hens confined in cages with little room to move.
That’s changing. McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, General Mills and Nestle all said this fall they are gradually switching to cage-free eggs in the US. Consumers are buying more cage-free and organic eggs. Laws in five states, including California, ban caged hens.
But what do terms like “cage-free” and “organic” really mean? Not what you might imagine. According to a new report from the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute, a nonprofit that promotes organic food policy and farming, eggs labeled “organic” or “cage-free” can be produced in industrial-sized barns by hens that rarely see the light of day. No wonder consumers are confused.
More hens are uncaged today than ever before. The numbers will continue to grow, as some of the US’s biggest producers expand their cage-free operations. Indeed, cage-free is on its way becoming the new standard for eggs in the US. That’s the good news.
The trouble is, cage-free is nothing to crow about. It means just what it says. Hens aren’t kept in cages. But they can be kept indoors for their entire lives, crowded into industrial-sized barns. (Some conventional egg producers argue that cage-free methods are worse for the hens than conventional cages. Jesse LaFlamme, the president of Pete & Gerry’s Eggs, disagrees. “I grew up with cages,” he told me. “They’re awful.)
The organic label, meantime, assures only a marginal improvement over cage-free. It requires hens to have access to the outdoors. But extensive research by Mark Kastel and his colleagues at the Cornucopia Institute found that big organic farms can meet that requirement by building a small porch around their barns. His researchers flew over big organic egg farms and found no hens outside.
Put simply, neither cage-free nor organic means that hens get to run around a sun-dappled pasture, pecking at the grass, as hens like to do.
So what is a consumer who cares about animal welfare to do? Cornucopia’s scorecard of egg brands is a useful guide. Its top-ranked brands tend to be small and local. You can also look for third-party certification of producers from groups like Certified Humane and Animal Welfare Approved. I look for Pete & Gerry’s. Vital Farms, a Texas-based chain, gets high marks from Cornucopia.
You can read the rest of my story here.