Saturday, April 26, 2008

Happy Hens: Hold on tight to your beak!

I like eggs. A lot. And being a “friend” of animals, I like to make sure that the chickens producing those delicious little nuggets are as happy and humanely kept as they can be. Easier said than done considering how confusing the labels on egg cartons are these days. Organic, free-range, natural, etc. Those adjectives sound fine and dandy, but the truth is they don’t mean much when it comes to the actual welfare of the animal.

Demystifying the Egg Carton:

Cage Free- means the hens aren’t physically kept in cages, but doesn’t mean they have outside access. Just because they’re crammed into a barn instead of a wire basket doesn’t make the quality of life any better.

Free Range-hen are not confined to cages/barns year round and the farm must prove that the birds had outside access. This is regulated by the Federal Safety Inspection Service (FSIS).

Organic/Certified Organic-eggs can only be labeled organic if they meet the standards issued by the USDA. This includes the animals having organic feed, outdoor access, and are free from antibiotics.

Omega 3-just means the hens have been fed a diet that raise the Omega 3 content of the egg, which happens naturally in pasture-raised hens.

Vegetarian Fed-the feed does not contain any animal by-products.

Natural-refers to feed and feed additives only. Not yet regulated by an agency.

So maybe you already buy organic, cage-free eggs, but chances are those birds still might be crammed into a tiny living area with thousands of their closest friends. Hens that don’t have adequate living space, like humans, get stressed out, and eventually start fighting. For this reason, those farms debeak the hens so they won’t harm each other. Quite frankly, that freaks me out. I would much rather pay the extra couple of dollars to get eggs from chickens in one piece.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, the best way to buy eggs (and meat) are from family owned farms and co-ops. These are the people who care about the animals, and not just trying to make a buck. A couple of safe bets are Organic Valley and Nest Fresh, but also check out your local farmers markets and co-ops. Also, the larger the egg, the older the hen. So if your egg producer is sells extra large eggs, you know that they’re keeping the hens through old age (they get less productive as they get older) and not selling them down the river.

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