What a clucked up mess: Egg labeling in America

I love chickens. Chickens are my jam. They’re such hilarious characters, each with their own distinct personalities. They’re smart, they’re funny, they’re friendly, when given a chance to get out and be themselves. As a bonus, they produce eggs, which I love, and there are few things in this world as amazing as a really good egg. Sadly, most of the population lacks access to high quality eggs, because industrial egg production is the norm, and pastured (more on this in a moment) eggs from small farms are small in number, harder to get, and more expensive. If you have to choose between $7 or more a carton and $2.99 or less, well, sometimes you need to make a choice predicated by what you can afford.

Take a look at the egg section of the grocery store and you will find a dizzying array of options. Jumbo, large, farm-raised, vegetarian, organic, free-range, cage-free…what the hell does it all mean? Descending into the abyss of egg labeling is actually quite a rabbithole, because, as with a lot of foods, labels don’t necessarily mean what you think they mean, and many are designed to be deliberately vague to appeal to consumers. Many consumers want ‘healthy’ foods, making ‘organic’ and ‘natural’ labels appealing, and they also want ‘ethical’ foods, so they’re drawn to advertisements for ‘free range’ and ‘cage free’ eggs. What they’re getting in those cartons, though, is not what they think they’re buying.

Let’s start with the basics, which is egg sizing, the one thing that really is what it says on the box. Here’s a rundown on the size and quality standards that apply to commercially sold eggs, including the AA (‘perfect’), A, and B (not sold in retail) grades as well as the sizing guide. The requirements here are strict and straightforward, classifying eggs by their shell appearance and size. Bam. Done. If you get a carton of large A eggs, you’re getting eggs with nice, smooth, even shells, intact yolks and whites, and a few quality flaws, and they weigh two ounces each (actually, USDA grading is by the dozen, and ‘larges’ are 24 ounces/dozen, so your precise weight may vary a bit).

What about brown or white eggs? People often have the notion that one is healthier than the other, but this isn’t actually the case. Basically, it has to do with breed (and of course some birds lay green-blue eggs and speckled eggs). Organic versus not organic? Remember, the organic label is based on very strict USDA standards, and organic chickens eat organic feed — that’s the yardstick used for the labeling. However, ‘organic’ doesn’t cover worker welfare or much by way of treatment for animals, and it can also be pretty creatively interpreted. Just because it says ‘organic’ doesn’t mean it’s necessarily healthier or more ethical — some farms can’t afford organic certification or don’t qualify on technicalities, and huge farms with poor labour and animal welfare practices can absolutely qualify. As for the health of the eggs, what matters is the quality of the feed, not the source. Which reminds me, vegetarian eggs aren’t healthier — chickens evolved to eat a mixed diet and they thrive on bugs and other creatures of the pasture, which give their eggs more loft and flavour.

The ‘natural’ label isn’t regulated and has no real meaning. (Which is something regulators should really get on, because it’s used to great effect by unscrupulous companies that rely on consumers to be drawn by the notion of health food without the awareness that the label has no teeth.) Terms like ‘fertile,’ ‘omega-3 enriched,’ ‘farm fresh,’ and ‘pasteurized’ similarly don’t have any meaning, but are rather buzzwords designed to appeal to consumers who find the appearance of vaguely healthy terminology reassuring. After all, do you want the farm fresh organic free range brown eggs, or the generic AA large whites? Functionally, they’re often the same in terms of animal and worker welfare and quality.

Some things consistent across the commercial industry: Debeaking so stressed hens don’t injure each other, culling male chickens soon after hatching, and forced moulting to increase egg production, as well as skimping out on feed to save money and cramming as many chickens as possible into barns, sometimes by the thousands. Entering a commercial chicken operation is likely stepping into a feathered hell.

What does ‘cage free’ mean? Chickens can walk around uncaged (but they’re still indoors in a crowded environment) and they can theoretically nest and do other natural chicken things. They can still be debeaked and are subject to forced molting. ‘Free range,’ ‘organic,’ ‘certified organic,’ and ‘free roaming’ chickens live in similar conditions, but they have ‘access’ to the outside. That’s typically through small entries and exits, and many of the birds don’t take advantage of that access. Some farmers pursue third-party certification through welfare groups — for example, a company might want to demonstrate that its hens actually do live on pasture and come into barns only at night for the benefit of consumers with concerns about animal welfare. As always with such certification programmes, though, they’re only as good as the paper they’re printed on, and consumers need to be prepared to audit a firm’s practices and standards.

Food labeling is complicated, and that’s a feature, not a bug, in the eyes of the industry. If you want to know where your eggs come from, you have to visit the farm, and that’s not practical for the vast majority of people trying to make compassionate, sensible choices about where and how they source their food. But there’s something deeply deceptive and slimy about selling people a line of goods on things like this, capitalising on market trends in a way that obscures the real conditions at chicken farms.

Image: Yard eggs, S G, Flickr