"Free Range," "Cage Free," "Organic": What's the Story?
01 July 2003
By Starre Vartan,
E/The Environmental Magazine
In the past 10 years, the egg has undergone a remarkable
transformation, from a humble provider of protein, vitamins, and
minerals to an all-purpose edible conduit through which beneficial
nutrients or potentially harmful chemicals can pass into the human
As Americans become more critical of what they eat, small farmers and
large-scale agribusiness have responded with a bewildering array of
choices. And with the increasing variety of food products, even
basics like eggs can confuse consumers.
In any reasonably enlightened grocery store, the consumer can choose
between "free range," "cage-free," and "organic" eggs. One brand may
be "fortified with omega-3s," while another comes from hens fed only
with "natural grains." One package is simply labeled "natural." What
do these different labels actually mean? And what is their
significance to people with widely varying needs, such as a heart
disease sufferer, a nursing mother, a vegetarian, and an
animal-rights activist? And weren't eggs supposed to be bad for you
anyway, being packed with fat and cholesterol?
The truth is that although eggs' nutritional value has been demonized
in the past, they are a valuable source of protein, vitamins, and
minerals. A large egg has about 215 grams of cholesterol (about 70
percent of the daily allowance), meaning that it is probably best to
eat them in moderation. However, eggs do contain heart-healthy
nutrients such as antioxidants, folate, and B-vitamins.
Organic and cage-free eggs have shown seven-fold growth since 1997.
"Specialty eggs," as Linda Braun, consumer services director at the
American Egg Board terms them, "amount to about 5 percent of the
total U.S. egg market."
This growing popularity has allowed smaller organic family farms to
compete with the mechanized egg-producing giants, since they can
charge up to twice as much for a dozen eggs. In fact, many smaller
farms have been able to stay in business because customers will pay -
some because they care about animal rights, some because they prefer
organic foods, and others because they believe organic eggs just
"Some of our customers in their 70s and 80s call us and tell us they
haven't tasted an egg like ours in years," said Jesse LaFlamme, whose
father is Gerry of Pete and Gerry's Farm, a family-run egg producer
in New Hampshire.
While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not rate the
taste of products, it does oversee all domestic egg production.
Although eggs can now carry the USDA Organic label, the agency
doesn't regulate any other claims made on egg packages. The organic
label, as defined by the new official standards, means that neither
the hens nor their feed can be subjected to antibiotics, hormones,
pesticides, or herbicides.
As for other package descriptions, LaFlamme said, "'All-natural' is
one of the biggest loopholes going. There are no guidelines around
for that. It's in the hands of the consumer to sort it out."
The "Free-Range" Debate
When it comes to "cage-free" and "free-range" chickens, the debate
gets pretty nuanced. At Organic Valley, a family of farms across the
United States, the hens are said to be free-range. According to a
package insert, that means five feet of green space per bird outside
and two feet inside as well as natural sunlight inside the hen house.
Egg Innovations, also a farmer's cooperative, produces several
varieties of eggs, including cage-free. All of the company's eggs are
"free-farmed," a label monitored by the American Humane Association.
This label promises that the chickens are "free from any unnecessary
fear and distress; free from unnecessary pain, injury, and disease;
free from hunger and thirst; and free from unnecessary discomfort."
The company says its policy is to put animals first over the dictates
Pete and Gerry's shies away from using the term free-range. "We think
it's misleading to call them free-range," said LaFlamme. "We call
them cage-free since it's not really realistic for them to be going
outside in the winter in New Hampshire. They go outside when weather
A relatively rare label, "pasture-fed eggs," is applied to hens who
are fed grains and also forage outside for wild plants and insects.
Omega-3 eggs contain that valuable nutrient due to its direct
inclusion in chicken's feed. The source might be flax or linseed or a
direct supplement. The levels of Omega-3s, which are also found in
cold-water fish such as salmon, algae, and dark-green vegetables, are
self-regulated, so the assurances on the package aren't monitored.
This polyunsaturated fat has been linked to increased mental function
and immunity, reduced risk of heart disease, and more balanced
metabolism, according to Dr. Andrew L Stoll in his book The Omega-3
Joe Haptas of People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA)
thinks the debate about how chickens are treated and fed is important
but overlooks the larger issues involved in egg production.
"If people got the full story, I would hope they would choose not to
consume eggs at all. It's intrinsically problematic to raise chickens
for egg consumption. Male chicks are thrown away, even in small-scale
operations, since they don't lay eggs. That's 50 percent of the
chicks that are destroyed."
While animal-rights advocates often support better treatment of
chickens including more space to move around outdoors or in and the
elimination of battery cages (which can be less than 48 inches of
space per bird in the United States), Haptas argues that there are
"There are great egg-replacement products and plenty of egg-free
products available," he said. One example is Ener-G Foods' Egg
Replacement, which comes in a box and uses potato starch and tapioca
flour as a base.
Even if you aren't a bonafide animal rights advocate, there appear to
be significant links between the health of the hens that lay the eggs
we eat and our own well-being. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control
and Prevention (CDC) still consider egg-transmitted Salmonella
enteritidis to be an "important public health problem." Pregnant
women, children, and the elderly are especially prone to serious
illness from hen-house pathogens.
Factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses can be breeding grounds
for the development of disease for several reasons, including the
fact that hen houses can contain up to 15 million hens, often in very
The resultant stress lowers immunity and leads to widespread
antibiotic use, which has come under fire by the CDC and the World
Health Organization. The Keep Antibiotics Working campaign points out
that many of these antibiotics are the same ones administered to
humans, and the group argues this may lead to dangerous antibiotic
resistance among human diseases.
The Egg Board's Braun defends the practice by saying, "Low levels of
antibiotics are occasionally, but only rarely, used to prevent
disease and ensure the health of laying hens and are not considered
to be food-safety issues for eggs."
Steve Roach, food safety manager for Food Animals Concerns Trust,
said, "Though egg farmers aren't supposed to sell eggs from treated
hens, there is no government examination for drug residues."
Due to health and humane concerns, many European countries have
already banned the battery cages that keep laying hens from being
able to move around or stretch their wings. Germany is going a step
further by using the law to go back to small-scale farming. By 2006,
no German building can house more than 6,000 hens at a time. Perhaps
the United States should take some inspiration from the Old World and
end unhealthy and inhumane practices just to make a cheaper breakfast.
Starre Vartan, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, enjoys organic
and other specialty eggs.
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