If you purchase eggs, you’ve surely seen the words “free range” popping up on cartons. These words conjure images of a cheerful farmyard where chickens can roam free: pecking, scratching, and fluttering their wings as they please. The truth is, there are few set definitions or regulations regarding the words that appear on egg cartons. Consumer who want to decipher which products come from companies that prioritize animal welfare must learn to read between the lines.
The only words you truly want to see on egg cartons are “Animal Welfare Approved.” We’ll explain why in a moment. First, let’s sort out the reality behind the most common claims.
The Truth About Egg Farming
The only labeling regulated by the U.S. government is the use of the phrase “certified organic.” In order for this to appear on a carton of eggs, the hens who laid the eggs must be fed organic, vegetarian feed that’s free of pesticides and antibiotics. The degree of freedom and space afforded to those hens, however, can vary widely.
Conditions for egg-laying hens range from cages with floor space smaller than a sheet of paper to 100 times that amount of space, indoor and out. Pasture-raised chickens typically enjoy the most freedom, and have access to the most space. They may spend the majority of their time outside, only coming indoors at night for protection while they sleep.
Removing parts of hens’ beaks shortly after they hatch is a cruel but common practice. The intention is to prevent the hens from injuring in each other, a problem that arises largely because of overcrowding. Some egg producers also starve their birds to force molting which spurs a new cycle of egg-laying.
Setting aside the conditions for laying hens, the chickens at nearly every commercial egg company come from hatcheries that kill male chicks – typically by grinding them alive – since they are less profitable than female chicks by every measure.
The Only Words You Should Look For
The most meaningful words you can see on an egg carton are “Animal Welfare Approved.” This designation comes from a third-party auditing program called the Animal Welfare Institute, which has the highest standards of any out there. They prohibit forced molting, beak cutting, and the inclusion of meat or animal byproducts in feed. They also dictate that flocks must contain no more that 500 birds.
Eggs designated as “Animal Welfare Approved” come from hens who have 1.8 square feet of indoor floor space, and the ability to nest … perch …and dust-bathe. The hens must also have continuous access to an outdoor space covered with living vegetation where they can range and forage. Each hen is allotted a minimum of 4 square feet of outdoor space.
Humane Farm Animal Care runs a similar, though less comprehensive, program that offers three levels of certification. Eggs from producers who meet their guidelines are labelled “Certified Humane.” All three tiers prohibit forced molting, but permit beak cutting. Participants in the top-tier program can add the label “pasture-raised” to their cartons, which means that…
- Hens must be allowed into a pasture for at least six hours daily
- Each hen must have at least 108 square feet of pasture
- The majority of the pasture space must be covered by living vegetation.
Programs like these seek to ensure that consumers willing to vote with their dollar in favor of humane treatment of farm animals can be confident that the products they buy come from companies who uphold those values.