This article originally appeared on Cooking Up a Story
[Editor’s note: this post has been re-edited in the following manner. An earlier reference in the text to “no hormones” was removed since it’s illegal for hormones to be given to poultry across the board. In addition, after the post, there are responses from Michele Knaus, Mark Kastel and Joanne Rigutto regarding pastured chickens and organic vs. conventional feed.]
Many of the issues that those in the food movement feel are wrong with our dominant food system can be found in the poultry egg industry at large. Whether it’s examining our food production through the lens of animal welfare concerns, environmental impacts, worker’s health, deceptive consumer marketing practices, weak government oversight—the egg industry could serve as the poster child of much that is wrong with our industrial agriculture system.
Right off the bat, two things should concern those of us that enjoy eating fresh chicken eggs.
First, does it really require almost a 15-minute video to explain what we are actually buying when we purchase a dozen eggs at the supermarket?
And second, ask yourself this question. If we were permitted to visit any egg production farm in the country without notice and without any on-site viewing restrictions, would we likely purchase those eggs if we saw how the chickens lived and what they were fed?
To be fair, not all production practices belong in the same egg basket. As Michele Knaus explains in the video, the labels do provide certain information even if most eaters have little idea what those carton labels actually mean. And, if your budget will allow, it’s often possible to purchase eggs that do come from the types of small integrated farms that we often conjure in our minds when we think of free-range chickens and farms in general.
The other thing to be said in fairness, not all labels are merely marketing ploys. While far from ideal, the USDA Organic Certification label has a very specific set of standards and acceptable practices that are rigorously verified and enforced by the government.
The crux of the matter is this. Many of the third-party certification labels on egg cartons and designation terms, such as, all-natural, free-range, etc., seem more designed to mislead the consumer than provide accurate information. By their very nature, deceptive marketing practices belie the unpleasant truth that full-transparency would likely inhibit not strengthen a company’s bottom-line.
More about some of the ways chickens are treated in the conventional egg industry:
It should be noted, when Michele speaks about the widespread practice of killing newly hatched egg-laying chickens that are male, these birds are thrown in dumpsters or disposed of in other ways that indicate they have no value whatsoever to the egg producer. In contrast, on small farms, male chickens are raised to their youth and then slaughtered for food (spring chickens).
Here are some of the highlights from the video:
- Conventional eggs: Chickens live their entire lives inside battery cages with the free space of about a letter size piece of paper. They are not able to perform normal chicken activities such as spreading their wings, nesting, eating bugs and being outside. In the supermarket an average price of a dozen eggs will range between $1.50-3.00.
- High-end grocery store eggs: Depending upon what the chickens are allowed to do and what they are fed, these eggs will range in price between $3-6.00/per dozen. Within this category are eggs labelled in a variety of ways, including: local, all-natural, cage-free, free-range and USDA organic.
- Pastured eggs: Although these chickens may be fed grains, they are also eating bugs and grass that they were designed by nature to eat. Typically, pastured eggs are tastier and have higher nutritional value. They have access to the outdoors on a regular basis. $4-7+ per dozen.
Some marketing language that is either meaningless, or means less than you might think:
- Natural: Has no meaning since there are no standards nor any enforcement around the use of this term.
Local: This term is not monitored so you’ll need to check the location and decide for yourself if it’s local by your own personal standards.
- Cage-Free: The chickens are not confined inside battery cages but they are still housed inside large enclosed barns in large populations under cramped and other poor environmental conditions. There is no access to the outside world.
- Free-Range: sometimes, there is access to a dirt run, but since there is no outside monitoring, it may mean the chickens do not even gain this limited degree of access.
- American Humane Certified: This designation allows for continuous cage confinement of the chickens but expands the allowable space from a letter to a legal size piece of paper. It does not allow the use of forced moulting through starvation practices in order to boost egg production. However, beak cutting is allowed to prevent harm to other chickens.
- United Egg Producers Certified: Not much of a standard, it permits the use of battery cages and allows routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. Most battery cage producers voluntarily adhere to these standards. While it does not allow forced moultings, it does allow beak cutting.
- Certified Humane: The chickens must be housed cage-free, living inside barns, and some normal chicken behaviors allowed: stretching wings and nesting boxes, moulting through starvation is not allowed, beak cutting is allowed.
- Organic Certifications: A strict set of requirements that are monitored and enforced. The chickens must be kept cage-free, have to be fed a certified organic vegetarian feed (grain), be fed no animal by-products, or antibiotics.
- Animal Welfare Approved: These are the highest standards for the industry (as far as third-party certification goes) that pertain to animal welfare conditions. The standards allow for normal chicken behaviors and regular access to the outdoors. Moulting through starvation practices and beak cutting are prohibited.
PostScript: After this post published, I (Fred, Cooking Up a Story) received an email from Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, a research and consumer information nonprofit that promotes “economic justice for family scale farming”. In 2010, the Cornucopia folks published a report, Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture that “rates companies that market name-brand and private-label organic “shell” eggs based on 22 criteria that are important to organic consumers”. He raised several points, first, highlighting that the use of hormones in poultry is illegal (since 1960, the FDA has banned the practice). Second, Kastel pointed out that much of the daily diet of pastured chickens comes from stored grain versus from grass and bugs on pastures though the later is an important supplement. He argues that because stored grain makes up the bulk of a chicken’s diet, “eaters should choose organic pastured chickens” (over non-certified pasture raised chickens) because much of the stored grain contains soy which is genetically modified and may contain “toxic agrochemical residue” that bioaccumulate in the eggs.
I asked Michele Knaus (she was also the former executive director of Friends of Family Farmers and knows first-hand egg production practices of small farmers in our area), her opinion of the organic certification for pastured chickens. She responded that the issue of scale applies here. By definition, true pastured raised chickens (chickens that are actually allowed to graze on pastures as opposed to dirt runways) come from small farms. These farms often can’t afford the cost of organic certification not to mention the additional paperwork involved. Her suggestion is again, for folks to ask their farmer (at farmer’s markets and farm stands) how their chickens are raised and fed. Farmers that go the extra distance to pasture raise their chickens are likely to feed them properly as well.
I also reached out to Joanne Rigutto, a small integrated farmer in Molalla, near Portland. This is her take on the feed question (I know this farmer and have visited her farm. Rigutto seems to have an encyclopedic mind when it comes to food production and I have always found her to be practical and non-dogmatic in her farming practices):
The bulk of food that pastured chickens eat comes from purchased feed?
Yes, it does, or at least it should if the birds are being fed right. Milled feed is formulated to provide a balanced ration, especially for laying hens. Laying is incredibly hard on birds, regardless whether they are in a confinement or pastured production environment. If you look at the normal reproductive cycle of a chicken, they would lay a clutch of eggs, hatch them, and then rear the chicks. If the seasons are favorable, they may produce two groups of offspring per year. Even if you take into consideration loss from predators (meaning that the hen would have to lay one or two extra clutches for each that was hatched), a production environment is much harder on their bodies. When we keep birds for eggs, we set up a production environment for them that requires they lay way more eggs than they normally would in a year. That’s equally true for everyone, from the home chicken keeper all the way up to the battery production facility. Because we ask so much from our birds, we need to provide them with proper nutrition. While pasturing is one of the best ways to manage a laying flock, both for the health of the bird, and for the quality of the eggs, pasture simply won’t provide enough nutrition for the bird’s body to maintain that level of production.
If the birds are provided with free choice pellets they’ll use it as their primary food and the bugs and vegetation they eat will act more as a supplement than their main source of nutrition.
Are there different quality levels that go into chicken feed?
This is a difficult question to answer because the criteria are subject to the standards of the person/company milling the feed as well as the person/company that is buying the feed. I’ve fed birds on various different feeds from several different producers. I’ve fed conventional and organic, feed with lots of grain byproducts and feed with few or no grain byproducts. Most of the people I’ve talked to swear by the brand/formula they use, and they use that brand/formula because they believe it’s the best. My birds have performed well on all of the different feeds I’ve used. The only time I have ever had poor performance was if I got feed that had too much fines (dust) in it, indicating a milling or packaging issue at the plant, or if I fed feed that wasn’t formulated for the type of production I was doing (feeding a product not designed for chickens, feeding poultry feed that was formulated for a type of production other than what I was doing such as feeding layer pellets to meat chickens, or grower ration to layers, mostly spent grains instead of feed formulated for the birds I was working with, etc.) Sometimes, I’ve feed “off” feeds for specific purposes – feeding layer pellets to Cornish Cross because I wanted them to grow slower for a longer period of time. I’ve also fed all purpose livestock feed to emus for the same reasons.
But, anyway, what I’ve found, feeding a wide range of feeds to layers and meat birds, when sticking with something that’s formulated for layers, I actually haven’t found much of a difference in quality or performance.