This article is about the ethics of eggs, and what egg labels mean. Whether you choose to eat them or not is up to you, but I do hope that you consider the information offered here, and are considerate in your decision. If you are concerned about how healthy eggs are or are not for you, stay tuned for yet another upcoming egg post about just that. If you’re looking for baking substitutions, click here.
Eggs are a huge topic in my books – there is so much to be said about them! Because of that, this post is a bit lengthy, so here are the topics covered, in order, to make sure you find what you’re looking for:
- Egg Ethics
- Eggs = baby chicks?
- Conventional egg production
- Egg Terminology
- Free Run Eggs
- Free Range Eggs
- Organic Eggs
- Grey Areas: Kind and Clean Farms that are Not Certified Organic
- Farmer’s Markets
- CSA boxes
- Final Conclusion
I hold that conventionally-produced eggs are among the most unethical foods to come from farmed animals in North America. AND YET – eggs are possibly the EASIEST of animal foods to cultivate in a kind and gentle way (actually, both eggs and honey can be easily cultivated kindly, although often done cruelly). This means that making a very small change in where you purchase your eggs can have a huge impact both on the lives of chickens and on your own health.
Eggs are often referred to as “Nature’s perfect food” and this is because of just how very nutritious they are, offering lots of energy, brain support, basic body building blocks, and a good ol’, all ‘round whallop of nutrition.
Healthy eggs come from healthy chickens, and the chickens that lay the conventionally-produced eggs (i.e. non-organic) found in your average grocery store are not such healthy birds. So where to buy these healthier, ethical eggs, you ask? Your best bet is at a farmer’s market (or directly from a farm), and your second-best bet is store-bought organic.
First up: Eggs are not the equivalent of unborn chicks.
*cartoon by Natalie Dee
A simple fact to clear up, for those who really don’t know that much about chickens or eggs: eating eggs is not the same as eating unborn chicks. This may or may not seem obvious to you, but I have been asked this question on more than one occasion, and you all deserve to know! So here’s how that works:
Just like with all animals, whether the eggs are stored inside the body or “laid” into the outside world, it is only females who produce eggs. Whereas mammals keep these eggs inside the body and, if fertilized, grow babies in utero, chickens and other egg-laying creatures regularly lay eggs whether or not they are fertilized. If a mammal’s egg, kept inside, is not fertilized within a certain period of time, the egg is disposed of – this is menstruation in human females. For chickens, eggs are laid regularly – typically once a day – whether they are fertilized or not. Most hens seem to know that there is no life in their unfertilized egg after sitting on it for a day or so. If the egg has been fertilized, then there is a baby chick growing inside and the hen will continue to sit on the egg most of each day until it hatches.
Hens (female chickens) kept for egg-laying are not usually mixed with roosters (male chickens), except in some farm settings where a single rooster is kept with a flock of hens for protection. Therefore it is very unlikely or even impossible – egg-source depending – for an egg sold as food to be harbouring a baby chick inside. Eggs for sale are unfertilized, and would never become baby chickens, even if you sat on them, or hired a mama hen, or put them under incubator lights, etc.
Egg ethics question one, cleared up!
On to conventional egg production:
Chickens are arguably the most abused species on the planet. Hens raised as egg-layers in what the industry refers to as “concentrated animal feeding operations” (colloquially known as “factory farms”) live pretty miserable, sickly lives. This conventional egg production accounts for an estimated 98% of eggs sold in Canada. Standard practices include:
- Battery cages: these are stacked wire cages, about the size of a typical microwave. Each of these cages holds, on average, 5 chickens. These cages deny the possibility of natural behaviours such as stretching wings, walking, nesting, perching, and dust bathing. In addition to this obvious overcrowding, the stacking of these cages allows excrement to fall onto chickens below. The chickens on the bottom row especially are not a pretty sight, to say the least.
- Debeaking: this is the unanesthetized removal of chicks’ beaks. Due to the close confinement of the battery cages, many chickens begin to peck at each other out of stress, and debeaking is the “solution” employed, rather than granting the hens more space.
- “Disposal” of male chicks: as only female chickens lay eggs, the male chickens are not useful to this industry. Chickens raised for meat as opposed to egg-laying are entirely different breeds (meat chickens are bred to grow more quickly, etc.) and so males born to the egg industry are not raised for this purpose. Instead, male chicks are disposed of one way or another, often filling whole garbage bags that are tossed in a dumpster (live), or are ground up (also live). That’s pretty damn sad and disgusting, if you ask me.
- Forced molting: as hens have a natural egg-laying cycle that eventually ends (called menopause in humans), hens toward the end of their egg-laying careers are often deprived of food and light for up to 12 days, which forces molting and continued egg-laying for another six months. This is a stressful process used to force a hen to lay more eggs.
There are plenty of other gruesome aspects to conventional egg cultivation, but I think you get the picture. My point here is not to gross you out, but to emphasize that what happens to these poor creatures is really not okay. And sadly, if you buy a regular old carton of conventional eggs from the grocery store, that is probably what you are supporting.
Your dollar has purchasing power! While your boycotting these massive companies may not dent their business and send a loud message to them right away, your new support for a local farmer DOES have a huge impact on them, and helps their much kinder and more humane business tremendously!
There are lots of different labels out there and they don’t all mean the same thing. They’re also not all necessarily as good as they might seem.
Natural, or All-Natural
This means nothing. That is, this is not a regulated term and anyone can write this claim on anything. It does not speak to the treatment of the birds or the quality of the eggs.
Conclusion: This label is meaningless. It doesn’t even get a picture from me. So there.
Free-run eggs come from hens kept in open barns with no access to the outdoors. There is usually access to nest boxes for laying eggs in, but this is not a requirement for the label, nor is the provision of perches or litter for dust bathing. The main difference between free-run eggs and conventional eggs is that free-run eggs do not involve the use of battery cages. Sounds good, yet this does not necessarily imply that the hens have any more space than they would in a battery cage. Because chickens can peck at each other out of stress, debeaking is still common; disposal of males remains standard practice.
There is no third-party verification for the free-run label, nor are free-run eggs audited.
Conclusion: marginally better than conventional, but I for one won’t put my dollar behind it.
These eggs come from birds kept inside – in open barns – with access to the outdoors at least some of the time, but probably not all of the time. There are usually nest boxes available, however the main difference between free-range eggs and conventional eggs is that free-range eggs do not involve the use of battery cages. Sounds good, yet this does not necessarily imply that the hens have any more space than they would in a battery cage. Again, debeaking is still common; disposal of males remains standard.
Unless both certified organic and free-range, there is no third-party verification for the free-range label. Also, there is no requirement to provide nest boxes, perches, or litter for dust bathing.
Conclusion: marginally better than free-run, which is marginally better than conventional, but that still doesn’t make it necessarily good. If you are at a farmer’s market, however, and you see a farmer selling free-range eggs, ask him or her how they do it! A good general question is simply, “Would you tell me about your eggs?” Because this label CAN be done ethically. It’s just that it is not safe to assume it to be ethical based on the terminology alone.
Certified Organic Eggs
“Organic” has become quite the buzzword and, in general, yes, organic production is better than conventional production, for pretty much any food item (my only exception is fish, but that’s an article for another day). But what exactly does organic mean in the egg industry? What’s the difference between organic eggs and conventionally produced eggs?
- Organic standards for any type of animal food, including eggs, cover the following categories: feed, transport and handling, health care, living conditions, stocking rates, etc. Operators are to provide animals with access to the outdoors, shade, rotational pasture, exercise areas, fresh air and natural daylight suitable to the species, the stage of production, the climate and environment, and opportunity to express normal patterns of behaviour.
- Hens that lay organic eggs must be fed organic feed, or allowed to peck for their own food outside (on non-chemically treated pasture).
- Conventionally raised egg-laying hens are fed non-organic genetically modified feed, which is grown with all the common pesticides, herbicides, etcetera. This affects your health according to the principles of bioaccumulation.
- Hens that lay organic eggs, along with all other animals being raised for organic foods are required to have access to the outdoors, shade, rotational pasture, exercise areas, fresh air, however much natural daylight is suitable to the species/stage of production/climate/environment, and finally, must have the opportunity to express normal patterns of behaviour, which in hens includes dust bathing, walking, stretching out full wing span, nesting, and perching.
- Auditing and verification varies. Let’s talk about that.
Just “organic” versus “certified organic” on labels
Ontario does not require organic production systems to be regulated – within Canada, only British Colombia and Quebec have regulatory systems in place. Here in Ontario and in the other non-regulated provinces, the system is voluntary. This means that if a product says “organic”, but it is not certified (often some sort of validating logo on the label), then the product SHOULD adhere to the above listed guidelines, but no one has necessarily checked to make sure.
Certified organic means that someone has checked that all the organic standards are being met. This involves independent third-party inspection and certification by a certifying body. Certifying bodies call on independent auditors to perform these inspections.
The certification process for organics, however, is pricy and elaborate. It’s comparatively easy for a large-scale commercial operation to swallow the cost of certification if standards are already being met, but for small-scale local farmers, it’s often unrealistic. What does this mean? Ah, once again, this issue is not black and white. We’ll come back to this.
Conclusion: hooray for organic eggs! If I’m buying eggs in a store, I’d prefer to see that they’re certified organic. If I’m buying eggs from a market, then I’m less concerned with the certification because I usually have the opportunity to talk to the farmer directly and can ask if their farm uses organic practices, if they meet all of the organic standards, etc. This brings us to the next section:
Grey Areas: Kind and Clean Farms that are Not Certified Organic
As the certification process for organics is expensive and involves a boatload of paperwork, many small-scale local farmers simply cannot afford to go through with it, even if their farm is up to organic standards. It’s organic, but they can’t afford to buy the label “certified”. Others may choose not to deal with the headache of all the required paperwork, especially if they already have a full clientele of people who understand the quality of their farm and its products, and simply not bother to seek certification. Many in these position don’t use the term organic at all, even though their foods meet the standards for the term. This is when it becomes important to talk to your local food providers and find out what is in fact clean and ethical.
But golly, where would one go to do this? Wait, I know!
Please, please, please take advantage of the farmer’s markets that are surely around you and support our local farmers! The distance that most of our food travels to get from the field to our plates – eggs and otherwise – is staggering and kind of stupid. Not to mention really gross when considering the pollution generated in the transportation. Watch a really important and adorably animated short video about this concept here.
Back to eggs!
Not all farmers at markets are selling organic foods, but often many are. When in doubt about anything, ASK! Most farmers are proud of what they do (and rightfully so!) and will appreciate your interest, and will be happy to tell you about their farms and practices.
Want to buy a farmer’s eggs, provided they are ethical and clean (i.e. not full of pesticides/hormones/antibiotics from their feed, etc.) but not sure what to ask, or how to ask it? Try any of these:
- “Is your farm organic?”
- “Are your eggs/products produced to organic standards?”
- “What do you feed your chickens?” (The answer you probably want to hear is either organic feed, or that they scratch, meaning they peck around for their own food outside on the ground, in which case you might want to ask if the farm itself is organic to avoid them picking up pesticides and whatnot from their food.)
- My favourite, as it is the most broad, there is nothing leading in it, and it gives the farmer the opportunity to give their full spiel and also show their pride if they so chose: “Please tell me about your eggs!”
Where to find a Farmer’s Market near you
If you live in Toronto like me, then there’s sure to be one close by. Check out this list of Farmer’s Markets in Toronto! If you live outside of Toronto, there are still markets abound. If you’re not sure, just do a quick online search. MARKETS! THEY’RE AWESOME! GO FIND ONE!! GO FIND FIVE!!!
CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture. These are boxes of food – usually produce but sometimes other goods like eggs, honey, and even homemade jam! – from local farmers that are delivered either to your house directly or are taken to a central drop-off location, where you can pick it up weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly, as you choose. These are signed up for in advance with a specific farm. You can also choose the size of your box (food for 1 person, 2 people, 4 people, etc.).
Some include eggs, some don’t. Usually a website will tell you, or you can again ask the farmer.
Interested in ordering a CSA box? Find the farms offering them through this directory here. Again, not all are necessarily organic so make sure you’re getting what you think you’re getting before you sign up. Don’t be afraid to ask questions!
Getting a CSA box is really exciting – it’s like getting a loot bag or every week or month! “Ooh, what did I get THIS time?!?” It also means that you’ll be eating seasonally, getting the best of whatever’s available at exactly that particular week or month. AND you’re supporting local farmers, as well as practices that are typically much kinder to the earth and its animal inhabitants. SO MANY AWESOME THINGS!
If you choose to eat eggs, I recommend ethical goods from a farmer’s market or a CSA box first and foremost, and if not local, then your best bet from a store is certified organic.
THAT’S THE SCOOP! I hope this clears things up for you. If you have any questions, I want to hear them! Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.
Hug a hen and thank a friendly farmer! Stay eggsellent, friends!
-Candace, lover of hens