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… So I asked Daisy the Decoder to help us understand what the heck is going on!

eggs

I met Daisy at BlogHer Food.  How did she earn her “The Decoder” nickname?  Well, she works for the ASPCA and is an expert on what those egg labels actually mean – I’m talking about “organic,” “free range,” “cage free,” etc.  I’ve written about this topic before, but when I go to the store, I’m STILL confused by all the flashy terminology.  Below, Daisy breaks down what marketing hype and what’s real – and what to look for if you want to buy eggs that come from humanely treated chickens.

 

Note: all of this refers to eggs bought at grocery stores.  Daisy says if you can’t find the certified brands at your grocery store, your safest bet is to buy local eggs at the farmer’s market. You still need to talk to the farmers directly to understand what is going on with their chickens.  Plus, then you’re directly supporting a local farmer, which is a win-win!

PicMonkey Collage

CAITLIN:  Can you talk a little bit about how egg labeling relates to marketing?  You told me a bit about how manufacturers are always trying to one-up and catch-up with each other. What problems does this cause for consumers?

 

DAISY:  Labels are understandably a big source of confusion for consumers! It can make you want to throw your hands up in the air.  But with a little knowledge, it’s possible to avoid buying products from animals raised in some of the most inhumane conditions. Unfortunately, some of what gets put on meat, egg, and dairy packaging is essentially empty marketing because the terms have no legal definition or no audits to enforce the claims. For example, “natural,” “naturally raised,” “humane,” and “humanely raised,” are all terms with no government agency regulating their definition or verifying that companies are doing anything better than conventional factory farming. Yet companies use them to make their products stand out on the shelves. And then when studies show that consumers see the word “natural” and think more highly of it than organic, companies will rush to stamp that meaningless term on every package and it becomes an arms race.

 

The best example of that on chicken and egg products is “hormone free.” Chicken and pig producers are not currently legally allowed to administer any hormones to those animals, so if a consumer sees “hormone free” claims on eggs, chicken meat, or pork products they’re not adding any value.

 

“Cage-free,” the term that many consumers are now looking for to assure that egg-laying chickens did not live their entire lives in tiny, inhumane battery cages, is a good start, but use of the term does not require outdoor access, pasture, or even a minimum amount of space per bird. As a result, birds could be and often are still crammed into indoor, artificially lit sheds with less than a square foot of space per bird.

 

And as a note, chickens raised for meat are almost never raised in cages in this country, so the term “cage free” on chicken meat is stating the obvious. As a result of these subtle but important differences, consumers can end up inadvertently paying for something they don’t want. To have more certainty of the practices used on the farm, consumers can look for some of the farm animal welfare certifications that require 3rdparty audits, like “Certified Humane”, “Animal Welfare Approved”, or the Global Animal Partnership’s 5-step program. These labels involve on-farm audits and are backed by publicly available standards that prohibit the use of cages and define minimum space, among many other requirements. I recommend people search their websites to find out where the certified products are sold, and what the standards are exactly.

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CAITLIN:  What, in your opinion, are some labels that manufacturers put on eggs simply to jack up the prices but don’t mean much in terms of animal welfare?

 

DAISY:  Hormone free, as I said before, is an absolutely empty term given that chickens are prohibited from receiving hormones by the FDA. I would also be wary of “free-range” or “free-roaming,” which has no legal definition when it comes to egg production. It typically means that the birds are un-caged, but may be in a barn and if they have outdoor access, the type and length of time they’re allowed outside is not defined.  Often I’ll see “pasteurized” on eggs and I can imagine consumers confusing that with “pastured” eggs. Pasteurization is a process of heating a product for food safety concerns. “Pastured” should mean that the birds had access to pasture. Unfortunately, that term is not legally defined by USDA, so consumers who see it on packages should speak to the company or farmer directly if possible to verify that the birds did indeed have access to grass.

 

“Vegetarian-fed” means that birds are not eating feed with animal by-products, but has no implications on the living conditions of the birds. “Omega-3 enriched” similarly does not mean anything for the birds’ conditions. Animals living and feeding on grass will produce eggs and meat that naturally has higher levels of omega 3 without dietary additions.

 

CAITLIN:  What does "organic" mean for animal welfare?

 

DAISY:  Organic production generally limits the use of hormones, antibiotics and other inputs, and requires that animals’ feed be organically grown. However, the animal welfare standards for the USDA organic label are not currently strong and we have been petitioning the USDA’s National Organic Program to improve them for years. While animals on organic farms are required to have some access to the outdoors, that access is not strictly defined in terms of size, quality, or duration of time. Space per animal is also not defined clearly. These loopholes are allowing large companies to gain organic certification, raising animals in conditions that are barely better than factory farms.

 

An ASPCA survey recently showed that consumers believe they’re paying for better animal welfare than this when they buy organic. Not only are these standards inadequate for animals’ welfare and below consumer expectations, they’re also undercutting the smaller farmers who are certified organic but raising animals to much higher standards, including true outdoor access or pasture-based farming. Again, the third-party verified animal welfare labels are the best way to go if an assurance of farm animals’ welfare is the consumers’ priority. Alternatively, if shopping at a farmers market, it’s important to ask how their animals are raised: cages, outdoor access, antibiotic use, breed?

 

The ASPCA has some great pages on factory farming that discuss the basic welfare issues related to each species that can help consumers who chose to eat meat, eggs and dairy avoid factory farmed products. http://www.aspca.org/farmanimal

 

CAITLIN:  I went to Trader Joe’s on Sunday and saw a bunch of different labels, some of which you already addressed.  But I also saw “additive free” and more claims about antibiotics and hormones.  Can you talk about that?

 

DAISY:  I’ve addressed some of these above, but not additives, and I can say a bit more about the hormone/antibiotics issue. “No additives” is a general claim that a product has not been enhanced with the addition of natural or artificial additives. There is no USDA definition of the term “no additives,” so anyone using the term may or may not be referring to this legal regulation. Even some terms that seem straight forward, like “hormone free” or “antibiotic-free” are not simple to decipher.

 

As I said, hormones are not used on chickens or pigs but they are approved for use on cows raised for meat or milk, and in those cases consumers avoiding products from animals treated with hormones should look for the USDA regulated terms: “no hormones added”, or “no hormones administered.” The term, “hormone-free” is not approved for use on dairy or beef because all animals produce hormones, so it would be impossible to call a product truly “hormone-free.”

 

Many consumers are also looking for assurances that antibiotics have not been given to farm animals on a daily basis to compensate for unhealthy living conditions, thereby creating antibiotic-resistant bacteria on the farm that can travel to consumers. The claim “antibiotic-free” is not allowed because antibiotic residue testing technology is not strong enough to verify that an animal has never received antibiotics. Instead USDA allows “no antibiotics administered,” “no antibiotics added,” and “raised without antibiotics” if producers show documentation that an animal has never received the drugs during their lifetime.

 

In theory, “pasture-raised” is a good term. Animals should be able to roam freely and have access to pasture, with sun on their backs and dirt to root in. Ruminants like cattle and goats should be able to eat grass for their entire lives, instead of spending their last months on cramped, barren feed lots eating grain. In reality, “pasture-raised” is not a regulated term, so it’s meaning can vary, and the USDA’s definition of “grass-fed” allows for feedlots, antibiotics and hormones.  Until the terms are better defined by the USDA, consumers seeking products from animals truly raised on pasture should seek out the three certification programs I mentioned above and  American Grassfed Association, (AGA).

 

For more information, check out the ASCPA’s section on farm animals.  You can also check out the “What the Cluck” page.  I always thought of the ASCPA as a dog and cat group, but they do a ton of work behind-the-scenes for farm animals and offer many great resources.

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  • Samantha June 11, 2014, 9:20 am

    I like using the cornucopia institute’s website. I look at their egg, dairy, cereal, protein bar scorecards. It makes life easier for me. I used to spend a lot of time trying to research and make decisions, but I just don’t have that time anymore and they do a lot of the work for me. Thanks for this post! Food labels have gotten quite deluded these days.

    Reply
    • Caitlin June 11, 2014, 10:38 am

      Thanks for that resource!! I’ll check it out!

      Reply
  • Ali June 11, 2014, 9:29 am

    Thank you for posting this and interviewing Daisy. I didn’t know a lot that was in this article. I had no idea that pig/chicken farmers weren’t allowed to use hormones and that was a blank term in marketing. I also had painted a rosy picture of the other terms like cage-free. Good to know!

    Reply
  • Tammy Root June 11, 2014, 9:41 am

    Great post Daisy and Caitlin! So, what is the bottom line for the best and most humane type of eggs to buy? Organic? Do you have a brand that you like? I just want to make the best choice at the grocery store. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Melanie June 11, 2014, 9:51 am

    Hi Caitlin! Interesting that you are writing about this today because I have been researching this myself lately too – from what I have found it seems that Animal Welfare Approved might be the most humane (if we can call it that). But have also found these are tough to find! I thought Whole Foods would be an obvious choice but they did not have any Animal Welfare Approved eggs. I’m going to keep searching though. Thanks for posting about this today! It’s important for people to know where their food is coming from and how those animals were treated.

    Reply
  • Rachel June 11, 2014, 9:53 am

    Great post – I always appreciate more information on complicated food and agricultural issues. I think you meant ASPCA though.

    Reply
  • Kelly June 11, 2014, 10:01 am

    This is so helpful!!! I am often bewildered by these terms. And I’m happy to pay $4 for a dozen eggs if I know that the labels of “cage free” , etc actually mean what they do. I’m wondering if Lauren can recommend a commercially available brand of eggs for consumers?

    Reply
  • Nicole N. June 11, 2014, 10:05 am

    Thanks for sharing this! Am I correct in understanding that basically it is impossible to walk into the grocery store and by inspecting the labels buy eggs from happy chickens without doing research beforehand about the companies’ practices?

    Any tips on companies that do raise the birds using high standards as well as organic feed etc? I try to get eggs from the farmers market but it isn’t always an option for us due to time constraints and zoning states we can’t have chickens in our yard so sometimes the grocery store is our only option.

    Thanks!!!

    Reply
    • Caitlin June 11, 2014, 10:37 am

      You could just look for those three labels that I bolded – it’s in Daisy’s first reply!

      Reply
      • Nicole N. June 12, 2014, 11:38 am

        Thanks! I have no clue how I missed that before!

        Reply
  • Nicole Y. June 11, 2014, 12:28 pm

    Thank you for this informative post!!
    The timing of it is somewhat perfect!

    Recently the bf and I discovered a local businessman who also raises chickens and sells the eggs as a side gig. His chickens roam freely and are only fed grains and tomatoes! :) We are blessed to purchase his from him at a ridiculously low price and with the peace of knowing that the chickens who produced our eggs are well treated and happy!

    Not everyone has direct access to a farmer and have no other choice than to purchase from the grocery store. This post gives them the knowledge to make informed choices and that is wonderful!

    -Nicole

    Reply
  • Lin June 11, 2014, 2:05 pm

    I love the idea do this post but for me it ended up being more confusing than helpful. Can you please just spell out what we need to look for?

    Reply
    • Caitlin June 11, 2014, 2:49 pm

      hahah so sorry!

      To have more certainty of the practices used on the farm, consumers can look for some of the farm animal welfare certifications that require 3rdparty audits, like “Certified Humane”, “Animal Welfare Approved”, or the Global Animal Partnership’s 5-step program.

      Or you could buy eggs from a local farmer.

      But basically, don’t feel compelled to pay more for organic eggs because you think that means the animals are treated better, because it doesn’t mean that they are.

      Reply
  • Jo Ann McCord June 11, 2014, 10:17 pm

    Wonder how Salmonella enters the egg supply? Experts say that chickens carry the bacteria in their own bodies, and pass Salmonella along to the yolk and white while the egg is forming in the ovaries. Chickens can also pass bacteria to the eggshell—and through the shell pores into the inner egg—when the egg is laid. Chickens can harbor Salmonella without being sick themselves.

    Eggs involved in Salmonellosis are almost always Grade A commercial eggs. Contrary to popular beliefs, cracked eggs are not generally responsible for the Salmonella problem. An intact shell by no means guarantees safe eggs. Likewise, cage free eggs, free-range eggs, organic eggs, or brown eggs are in no way exempt from the Salmonella risk.

    Any part of the egg can harbor bacteria, and both whites and yolks have been implicated in foodborne illness. However, the yolk is the most common source, according to the USDA. The most common element in foodborne illness: Eggs were served raw or undercooked. Per USDA regulations, eggs are washed and egg processing plants undergo washing and sanitization. However, these practices do not eliminate Salmonella contained within the egg.

    Reply
  • Sharon June 11, 2014, 10:50 pm

    Thank you so much. This is incredibly helpful.

    Reply
  • Runner Girl Eats June 12, 2014, 6:37 am

    Eggs and meat are always the most confusing things for me to buy. Thank you so much for sharing this! It’s scary how tricky the marketing can be.

    Reply
  • Kattrina June 12, 2014, 1:32 pm

    Thanks for this info! I find it confusing and just try to find Certified Humane but that’s not always possible.

    And just a reminder – organic also doesn’t mean that the farmworkers (the people picking our fruits and vegetables) are treated fairly or humanely either. I see a lot of information and concern about the treatment of animals (which is important to me too!), but I rarely see concern about the way the farmworkers are treated (which is also important to me) and often times they are abused and mistreated too.

    Reply
  • Heather @ Housewife Glamour June 12, 2014, 10:33 pm

    This is a great write up! Thank you so much for sharing this info… egg labels ARE so confusing!

    Reply
  • Stephanie @ Whole Health Dork June 13, 2014, 1:22 pm

    Thanks for this! I was watching something recently about the different terms for eggs and was shocked at what I thought cage-free meant and what it really meant. I’m definitely trying to pay more attention to my foods and look for seals, as opposed to “no hormones”-type claims.

    Reply