With so many labels out there that both inform and mislead, here’s what you need to know about how to buy healthy, humanely produced eggs.
On this page:
- What to avoid
- Understanding labels
- The importance of free range and pastured eggs
- Checklist for buying great eggs
- Where to find healthy, humane eggs
Eggs have gone from a cheap kitchen staple to a costly and often confusing part of our grocery bill. With pasture raised eggs totting up to $8 a dozen, you could be forgiven for looking for cheaper options. However, navigating the sea of labels and claims on egg cartons—everything from cage free to DHA enhanced—practically requires an advanced degree. You have to learn a whole new language to decipher the meaning behind the marketing jargon, which creates an illusion of value in order to get you to fork out the extra money while feeling you are making a healthier, more humane choice. But are you?
Don’t be fooled by nice-sounding labels or logos of hens pecking in grass in the sunshine. When it comes to eggs, a little homework will ensure your good intentions and extra expenditure don’t go to waste.
What to avoid when buying eggs: know the issues
Is it humane?
It’s not often in nature that we get to eat animal protein without first killing the animal. Eggs allow us to do just that, so in theory, they should be a harmless, humane food. But egg laying hens are some of the most horrifically abused creatures in our modern, industrialized farming system. So when it comes to eggs, it’s important to make sure that the chickens that lay them are treated humanely. Here are the animal welfare issues you need to know about when buying eggs.
There are two kinds of cages used for egg laying hens: battery cages and “enhanced” cages. Battery cages are so small, a hen typically cannot turn around, stretch her wings or preen her feathers. Battery cages are extremely cruel and farmers have come under pressure to give them up. However, they are still used where they are not explicitly banned. Over 90% of egg laying hens in the US live in cages.
In comes the “enhanced” version of life in a cage. This is sometimes referred to as enriched colony housing, though it’s doubtful any chicken living in one feels particularly fortunate. The cages are larger, but they put more chickens in it. They provide a nest box, a few perches and a scratching pad. The big selling point is that the birds can actually move a little.
Chickens don’t belong in cages, living their entire life inside a warehouse, in cages stacked vertically to the ceiling. The argument over whether a bird can actually stretch or not is ridiculous when it comes to animal welfare, because it should be a given.
Don’t eat eggs from birds who live in any form of a cage.
Indoors or outdoors
It’s great for chickens to have a clean, safe indoor space to spend the night, but during the daytime, chickens should be able to go outside. What does “outside” mean? Well, that’s been debated down to the square inch. Many labels have an exact, technical description of what “oustide” is, and it may have nothing in common with what you imagine it to be.
So let’s be clear: outside is earth, not a concrete porch. Outside can be a fenced field that is large enough for all the chickens to be outdoors at once, comfortably. Outside can be open pasture. What we are looking for is honest to goodness outdoors, not some technical version of it.
Some egg producers do not use cages, yet still keep giant flocks of chickens exclusively indoors their whole lives, packed together impossibly close in giant warehouse-size grower houses. These are often so filled with fumes from the chickens’ own waste that the birds get respiratory illnesses and body sores from the ammonia in the air.
Don’t eat eggs from chickens who live their lives exclusively indoors.
Perches, nest boxes, dust bathing and scratching pads
Chickens who go outside to a field or pasture don’t need scratching pads or special dust bathing gear. Nature provides, and chickens know how to take care of themselves if they are allowed a genuine outdoor area. You only hear about dust bathing and scratching pads for chickens who live exclusively indoors, where they would otherwise have no ability to do what chickens need to do to take care of themselves.
Essentially, egg producers have taken away every natural aspect of a chicken’s life to the point where they need to add back these fundamental necessities. Don’t be fooled. Insist that chickens live in a more natural environment where they can do these things for themselves.
Indoors, chickens like to roost at night on perches. If they don’t have perches, their feet could get damaged. Ideally, they like plenty of perches at differing heights. This mimics what they would do in nature, which is roost in tree branches. They are prey animals, and it makes them feel safe and less anxious to sleep this way.
Laying hens need plenty of nest boxes so they can lay their eggs in a way that feels natural to them, without having to compete for space. Chickens are very competitive animals.
Which brings us to our next, very unpleasant topic: amputation. As noted above, chickens are very competitive animals—hence the term “pecking order.” If you cram them together and don’t provide enough space, perches, nest boxes—the things that chickens use every day—they are going to go gladiator. They will peck each other to death under that kind of stress.
Rather than giving them adequate space and furnishings, industrial egg operators simply cut off their beaks, and sometimes also their toes, which is very painful for birds.
Birds molt every year, and during that time their egg production slows or stops. This is an important natural process for the animals, but obviously inconvenient for egg producers. The solution? To cut off all food and water for up to two weeks, which shocks the birds and forces them through their molt, bringing them back to laying eggs sooner.
Male chicks, who needs them?
Roosters can’t lay eggs, and very few are needed for breeding. In the egg industry, male chicks are useless, yet half the eggs hatched for breeding are male. Live male chicks are sent on conveyor belts to big grinding machines, or to gas chambers, or are killed by electric shock.
Is it healthy?
Another reason why it’s imperative for you to know how your eggs were produced is for your health. Egg laying hens are kept in such abysmal living conditions that they end up getting all kinds of infections. It is normal practice to combat this by giving them a constant, low dose of antibiotics in their feed.
But it doesn’t stop there. Birds are also pumped up with antidepressants, caffeine, and other feed additives. Chickens are not vegetarians, rather, they are omnivores. However, low quality chicken feed has been known to include…chicken parts, and we have seen how well cannibalism worked out for other farm animals such as cows.
We rightly advise pregnant women not to smoke or take drugs because the effects pass to the baby. The same goes for other animals. You want to eat eggs from healthy chickens who live in clean, uncrowded conditions and eat healthy, species appropriate food.
The problem with labels
Given that there are so many human health and animal welfare issues with modern, industrialized egg production, it would seem that labeling eggs would go a long way to helping us figure out what is in the carton. After all, eggs pretty much all look the same, and unfortunately you can’t tell anything about how they were produced by looking at them.
However, the proliferation of labels, both third party certified or not, has done much to confuse and mislead people. Frankly put, there is a lot of money on the table and plenty of egg producers working in the factory farm model who are vying to upsell you on the idea of something healthier or more humane.
Take certified organic eggs for example. The regulations forbid the use of antibiotics and require that the feed is organic. This addresses concerns about drugs, pesticides and herbicides. That’s certainly a good thing. However, people often mistakenly assume that certified organic eggs are raised humanely, and that is not always the case.
Organic regulations require that the birds have outdoor access, but do not specify what that means. Therefore, there are huge egg producers who are certified organic who provide a tiny concrete porch to meet the outdoor access requirement. The regulations also do not cover the conditions of hens’ indoor housing.
Imagine tens of thousands of laying hens crammed indoors with only a small concrete or wooden porch as outside access. This is the common practice for industrial-scale organic egg producers.
Most people don’t look up the regulations (if any) that govern labeling, and therefore are not aware of what the label actually means. While there are many small, local egg producers who are certified organic and use the highest animal welfare practices, how can you tell the difference between their eggs and the industrial organic egg producer when they both carry the same label?
Another example is the disparity between what certifiers consider humane. Some eggs that carry a Humane certification are actually from hens who live their whole lives indoors, in cages. Other organizations who give Humane label certifications would never consider caged conditions to meet the high animal welfare standards that should be exemplified by the Humane label. Some Humane certifiers allow beak trimming, but not debeaking, some do not allow any form of cutting a bird’s beak.
So different certifiers have different standards, sometimes very different. Again, you cannot tell by looking at the eggs or at the label. One Humane label may be more humane that another.
When it comes to humanely raised animals, Animal Welfare Approved is the most rigorous label we’ve found. They not only cover how the animals are treated and their living conditions, but also address health concerns such as antibiotic use. It does not require organic feed, however, and so does not address pesticide and herbicide exposure.
What about Free Range?
Free range is a great idea, but like other labels, the requirements are written so loosely that much is left to a farmer’s interpretation. On one free range farm, you may find chickens out on pasture living a life in nature and fresh air. On another free range farm, you may see chickens packed in a huge grower house that never go outside.
The Free Range label also does not address the many other health and welfare issues previously detailed, such as indoor living conditions or drug use.
Why is pasture raised so important?
Usually, pasture raised hens are birds that have mobile hutches and move from one pasture to another, following a herd of cows or other grazing farm animals. They forage for plants, insects and grubs and are an integrated part of a pasture-based farming system.
Since the chickens are living very close to natural lives, by default many of the animal welfare issues are rendered moot. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Mutilations: not necessary, since the birds have plenty of space. But even more than being unnecessary, mutilations are actually counterproductive, since birds living outdoors and foraging need their beaks and toes to survive and thrive. Pasture-based farmers have no incentive at all to cut parts off of their birds. However, they may still be buying pullets from industrial egg breeders who trim the beaks of all newly hatched birds, regardless of their final destination.
Forced molting: not possible, since you can’t completely starve birds that have access to a pasture full of forage.
Cages: obviously not.
Perches, dust bathing, scratching pads, nest boxes: not likely to be issues.
Why? Because chickens with injured or deformed feet are not going to do well on pasture, so farmers have every incentive to give them perches to roost on. Chickens who live outdoors have all they need to dust bathe and preen. And since they are out scratching all day while foraging, there is no issue about providing scratching pads. Nature provides. There is no point in going through all the work to move chickens from pasture to pasture if you don’t give them an adequate place to lay their eggs.
Outdoor space: there is no question here as to how many inches or feet of outdoor space is available per chicken, whether it’s dirt or concrete, etc. You don’t have to be a detective to uncover whether this much-debated outdoor space is the genuine article or some industrial egg producer pulling the green wool over your eyes. Pasture is real.
Unhealthy, tortured chickens don’t live well on pasture.
Checklist for buying healthy eggs from humanely raised hens
Labels are a start, but don’t tell the whole story. That’s why, no matter what the label says, you need to ask your egg producer these questions and decide for yourself if his practices meet your standards.
You can do this by phone, by email, by post, through the farmer’s social media page, or in person if you visit his stand at the farmers market. If you do not get a clear, unambiguous response to every question, or if you don’t get a response at all, consider another egg producer. Many egg producers, even small ones, have a website where they give details about their practices. But rarely do they address every issue outlined here. Make sure you get clear answers to all your questions.
Many local farmers offer scheduled tours. Seeing is understanding. There is much to be said about walking into a hen house. You’ll either pass out from the fumes or it will be just fine. That gives you much more useful information than detailed ventilation schematics. You’ll either see chickens shoulder to shoulder, or you’ll see they are running around behaving normally with plenty of space.
When a farmer tells you he provides 1.8 square feet per chicken, what does that really mean to you? When you actually see the chickens doing what they do, you will not need a measuring tape to decide whether it’s good enough. It’s easy to see whether chickens are living in clean, uncrowded environments. It’s much harder for the average person to imagine the implications of X square inches vs Y square inches.
One of the basic requirements we are assuming for this checklist is that the birds have daily access to a real outdoor area: true free range or pasture-raised eggs. If your eggs come from birds that are confined indoors or have only bogus outdoor access, then there are a host of other issues and it all gets very technical. How many square inches per bird, can the birds stretch their wings, is there proper ventilation to avoid ammonia buildup etc.
Healthy outdoor life is an essential requirement. Refuse eggs from hens that don’t have it.
- Do you perform physical alterations, such as beak or toe trimming or debeaking? Do you buy from a breeder who does?
- Do you confine birds to cages of any kind?
- Do your birds have daily access to the outdoors, and if so, describe exactly what that outdoor area consists of (you can also ask for photos of the outdoor area)
- Do you ever withhold water or food from your birds, for example, for forced molting?
- Do you provide ample perches and nest boxes?
- What do you feed your chickens?
- What is your policy on antibiotic use?
- Does your feed include drugs or additives?
- Is your feed organically grown?
- Does your feed include any animal products and if so, from which sources?
- What is your egg cleaning protocol, what do you use to clean your eggs?
Where to buy humane, healthy eggs
Find a local, small egg producer who has answered all the questions on your checklist and meets your requirements. Here are some places to find high quality, local eggs:
- farmers market
- farm stand
- CSA (some offer eggs as wells a produce)
- small community grocery
- community food exchange
- your neighbor (even if you are not in a rural area, urban chicken keeping is a growing trend)
The likelihood that you are going to find eggs from a small local producer that meet your standards at a supermarket are slim. Small producers don’t do the kind of volume that supermarkets demand. However, sometimes you can find some decent mid-size producers at the supermarket. Do your research and get answers from the producer before buying.
It seems like a lot of work just to buy eggs, but for most people, eggs are a weekly purchase, and it’s work you’ll likely only have to do once. Once you have a list of trusted brands and locations where they are available, you can rest easy knowing what you are getting and what you are paying for.
Spread the word
If you’ve gone through the trouble to find trusted sources, why not help others out and share your information? Let your friends and family know, find forums online where you can post your findings, share your information with community groups, you can even post it on this website. Find a way to get the word out.
Having to investigate all our food sources is overwhelming and time consuming. If each of us shares what we find, it will make the process that much easier.
Some final thoughts about eating eggs
Eggs carry a heavy ethical burden because of the way we mass produce them. From the very moment a chick breaks its way out of the shell, the rough handling, beak removal and for the male half, death, is a reality. For most hens, it doesn’t get much better from there.
Even if you can find a farmer who raises hens humanely, he may be buying his pullets from a breeder whose practices are less ethical. And the issue of culling all those male chicks is nearly impossible to find an answer for. Though it’s interesting to note that this is also a result of selective breeding. It used to be that one breed of bird was used for both eggs and meat—the hens going to egg production and the males raised for meat.
That all changed when two distinct breeds were developed: an egg laying breed that grew more slowly but produced more eggs, and another breed for meat birds, which grows very rapidly, but does not lay as many eggs. While it seems more efficient, it results in, among other things, hundreds of millions of commercially useless male chicks.
In the kitchen, eggs may seem a mere ingredient: something you use for baking or a quick breakfast scramble. But what it takes to produce them is not inconsequential. It’s important to do your research and find eggs that come from humanely raised hens. This will be more expensive, but if necessary, eat fewer eggs rather than compromising.
Another option is to keep a few hens yourself. Many people, even urbanites, are discovering the pleasure of raising their own egg laying chickens, and cities and suburbs are changing their laws to accommodate this growing trend.
More information on choosing eggs
People pay a premium for eggs with a Humane certification, yet certifiers have differing definitions of what constitutes a humanely raised hen. Until there is some clarity on this issue, we will be treated to more opaque, nuanced labels that may or may not represent what you think is humane. read more…
The best way to choose eggs is to find a local producer who uses humane, healthy and ecologically sound practices. Touring a farm and asking questions is far more effective than picking a dozen eggs from the store based upon the label alone. read more…
Certified organic, free range, cage free. There are so many options when buying eggs, but what do they mean, other than a steep price premium? Author Eden Canon takes a closer look at labels, in search of a healthy, ethically produced egg. read more…
Beyond nutritional content and animal welfare, you should also be aware of what happens to your eggs between the hen house and the marketplace. read more…
Mark McAffee of Organic Pastures talks about the pasture raised chickens that lay eggs on his raw milk dairy farm. read more…
Little Wing Farm is a micro-farm, a small plot nestled amidst larger farms in the storied agricultural area just north of San Francisco. As Molly showed me around her tiny farm, and inside her quail coop, I learned a lot about what it takes to raise quail humanely and produce high quality, nutritious quail eggs. But as our conversation unfolded, I learned a lot more than that. read more…