What do the labels on egg cartons really mean?

Day 190 of 365

We have 35 laying hens. Well, I did some math yesterday and figured out 5 are definitely retired, but we have 30 hens who could technically be laying eggs right now. Yesterday, we got 3 eggs. The days are short, and the nights are long here in Maine. This means it’s time for our chickens to get their rest. For 3 or 4 months out of the year, our hens (unless they are first-year hens) will not lay much, if at all.

Our eggs are quite delicious. You can taste happiness, and that is the reason we have a wait list for our eggs. Our chickens are treated very well. They are fed organic food, and most importantly, they have access (and actually spend their days) in a small, fenced pasture where they can nibble on grass or look for bugs and grubs in the wooded parts of our property. There is also the occasional frog, but I won’t go into that. They are deeply respected because they are our partners on our homestead. In addition to providing us with eggs, their poop feeds our garden, and they provide important pest control. They are also joyful to observe.

In the past, it is during this time of year that we have had to buy eggs at the store. Thankfully, three years ago, we started freezing our eggs to preserve them for the winter shortage, so we no longer have to buy eggs at the store. However, this time of year gets me to thinking about buying eggs and how the labels on egg cartons are very misleading and how people who many not understand chickens might appreciate some educational materials on what those egg carton labels mean and why one label is particularly important.

Caged

You will never see this label on an egg carton, but I start with this to ensure you look for labels that specific treatment of the birds. According to many experts, caged eggs is, perhaps, the cruelest food offered in our food system. If you see labels like farm fresh or all natural, or vegetarian fed, and that’s all you see on the carton, you are probably looking at caged eggs. (By the way, farm fresh and all natural are meaningless labels, and chickens are NOT vegetarians.)

Hens in cages never get to leave those cages, which, according to industry standards, is about the size of an 8 and 1/2 by 11 sheet of paper. I am begging you to never buy caged eggs. Chickens are brilliant animals. They have complex social structures; they have friends; they feel joy and sadness; according to researchers, they have the emotional intelligence and complexity of thought as many mammals. Researchers are finding that chickens are far more complex and far more intelligent than people used to think.

In my experience, this is all true. I have seen chickens mourn the loss of a friend. I have seen them feel joy at watermelon in the summer. I have seen them understand human language at amazing levels. I have seen them be shy around strangers and more themselves around me.

Please never support this cruelty.

Cage Free

Cage free is obviously better than caged eggs, but it’s a bare minimum when it comes to egg carton labels and definitely does not guaranty a good quality of life. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to use the cage free label, the eggs “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.”

So this is better. However, you will notice the USDA does not specify how much space the hens should get. This label also does not require any outdoor time for the hens, so hens could spend their whole lives and never see the outdoors. In fact, that’s often the reality. My main concern with this label is that the hens can be (and usually are) way too overcrowded. Their living conditions still are not good at all. The hens do not even have enough room to spread their wings.

I have seen what happens to our flock in the winter if we have had days and days of ice storms or really bad weather. After about a week of being cooped up, people get grumpy. I bring treats, toys, and make visits and sing songs, but our chickens still get grumpy. They peck a little more and have zero patience. Every time I see my hens get grumpy after a few days in the coop after a bad winter storm (and our hens have four square feet each in the coop, plus lots of perches), I think about the poor hens in our food system who have spend their whole lives with far less space. I can’t imagine how those hens make it.

It’s because chickens are very resilient animals, and it is because of this resiliency that we are able to abuse them and they keep going for us. When I see companies act like they are doing something wonderful because they are switching to cage-free eggs, I want to let them have it.

Free Range or Pasture Raised

In theory, these are the labels you want to see, BUT only when they are accompanied by a Certified Humane label. The USDA does not specify how much time outside or space is required for a free range label, for example, so it’s not a label that can be trusted by itself. But, if you see a Certified Humane label with free range or pasture raised, then that’s a good sign. Certified Human will be discussed below, but, under the Certified Humane umbrella, free range means 2 square feet per bird and outdoors at least 6 hours per day, weather permitting. Pasture raised means approximately 108 square feet per bird, and the hens are outdoors year round with housing that allows them to go in at night to be protected from predators. They are kept indoors only due to inclement weather. Again, this is ONLY under the Certified Humane label. If you see these labels without the Certified Humane label, then it’s hard to say what it really means. There just isn’t federal regulation of this. The Certified Humane label is a third-party program, but it’s trustworthy.

Certified Humane

This is the label you really want to see, so I am picturing it here. To get this label, the hens who lay these eggs must be uncaged and have access to perches, dust bathing areas, and nest boxes. Flock density is limited, but with this label alone, it is important to note that birds are not required to have access to the outdoors. Beak trimming is allowed, but de-beaking is not. And farmers are not allowed to use starvation to induce molting. (Yes, that’s a thing because hens will reset and lay again after they molt, but molting is very hard on chickens even when it happens naturally in the fall. I cannot imagine starvation-induced molting, but it happens a lot in the industry.)

Organic

The organic label only somewhat relates to the welfare of the hens, but it is an important label to be aware of, as it mainly focuses on what is going into the eggs you are eating. To be certified organic eggs, the hens must be fed 100% organic food. Contrary to popular belief, organic does not mean that farmers withhold non-organic treatments from a sick animal; instead, it just means that the eggs must be withheld for an extended period after a treatment because the eggs would not be organic. This label also ensures some level of humane treatment in that hens are required to have access to the outdoors year round and must at least be free range. However, this label is not gold standard for humane treatment like the Certified Humane label is.

This list is not comprehensive but does cover some of the most common labels I see. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to ask. If I do not know the answer, I know how to find it. It is important to note that sources will vary a little bit on what some of these labels means, so I used a variety of sources and used as many primary sources as I could from places like the USDA and CertifiedHumane.org.

I hope you will consider buying eggs with the Certified Humane label. They will be more expensive, but they should be. When food from animals is cheap, there is suffering, often great suffering. I wish I could write something different. I wish this weren’t the case, but it is. I have been wanting to write about the topic for a long time, but I have been hesitant because I have worried about offending people or showing my privilege by expecting people to pay more for eggs. I will just say this: If you can at all afford to buy humanely raised eggs, do. Chickens are magnificent animals and deserve some kind of reasonable existence while they are here, serving us and feeding us.

Sources

USDA Organic Standards, Egg Carton Labels: Here’s What All Those Terms Really Mean, Cage Free Isn’t All It’s Cracked Up to Be, The World According to Intelligent and Emotional Chickens, Here’s What 10 Different Egg Carton Labels Really Mean, Certified Humane, How to Decipher Egg Carton Labels

Photo Credit: Morgane Perraud, Unsplash

Kate’s Story (or Loving a Difficult Chicken)

My chickens do not love the snow, not one bit, but I have a few free spirits who insist on leaving the coop every morning, despite the winter weather. Still, I’ve never had a chicken who will venture out in full-blown snowstorm—until Kate.

I was shoveling the snow to make a path for the chickens one morning, and the conditions were terrible. It was snowing pretty heavily, and the winds were high. It was a good storm, but when I made my way to the coop door and opened it, Kate hopped out and took off.

I didn’t think she would go far, but when I looked up from my shoveling a few minutes later, I saw that Kate had trekked across the snow, and in the distance, though the snow was coming down all around her, I could see Kate walking around the tool shed on the far side of our property.

I had to know what this chicken was up to, so I trekked out there myself. I could see her footprints in the snow, but, suddenly, there was no Kate.

***

Kate was born on our little farm during the first few months of the COVID pandemic. It’s confusing to me that I have no baby pictures of her. Usually, my camera is full of baby chick pictures. But last year was different. It was like I was moving through molasses every day, and I did all of the farm chores, completed my work, and parented all while in some kind of “fog” that seemed related to stress.

But Kate brought me joy—and a little extra stress. She was the cutest thing I think I have ever seen. Kate is part Rhode Island Red and part Easter Egger, so she was this adorable reddish-brown color of the Rhode Island Red with the puffy cheeks of an Easter Egger. She looked like a chipmunk. That’s what I called her for several weeks.

“I hope my chipmunk chicken is a girl,” I would announce to my husband. We really hadn’t planned on keeping her when we were counting chicks as they hatched (I had been incubating chicks for others in our area who couldn’t get them), but when I saw her, I knew I had to keep this chicken. My husband, who is usually the voice of reason when it comes to the number of chickens we can keep happily in our space, didn’t argue a bit.

The chipmunk chicken won him over too. She was more than cute. She was brave, perhaps too much so for my taste, and, well, she was just sassy.

She was being raised by our mama hen, Pumpkin, along with another chick. Right next door to that little brood, another hen, Beethoven, was raising two chicks. You never know how a mama hen is going to react to other babies. There is some chance she will kill other babies.

We have never had this happen and have had hens raise babies together a few times. They generally end up co-parenting the whole group, and it’s magnificent. But, because of the potential risk, in the first few days, I will always build a little wall to keep the two broods separate. My little walls have always worked in the past, but Kate wasn’t having it.

I feel limited in my capacity to describe the cuteness of Kate’s little nightly adventures. After everyone was supposed to be tucked in with their correct mama, Kate would head out. She would take her tiny little chicken-nugget self all the way around that wall I built and would go visit the other mama hen and her babies.

She would never stay too long—just long enough to cause some chaos—and then she would head back around the wall, sort of. She would check out the garage, explore things, just sit there a little—all while the other baby chicks were tucked in with mama and going to bed.

I would often go out and scoop her up and try to deliver her to her mama, Pumpkin. But, when you pick up a baby chick, they will often cry. Let me tell you, you do not want to be holding a mama hen’s chick while it is crying. Mama hens fluff up to the size of a small turkey and become enraged at whatever is making their baby cry. I have been attacked by a broody mama hen several times in my life. I have always lived. But there has been blood, and I do not enjoy it.

One night, as I delivered Kate to her mama, Kate was extra loud, and Pumpkin gave me the full-on attack. Kate was certainly making my life difficult.

But Kate’s spirit charmed me, and when I found out Kate was a girl, I named her after Shakespeare’s famously-stubborn and powerful character, Kate. Of course, despite Kate’s charm, I figured she had a personality that would likely add to the number of gray hairs on my head.

***

I was a little worried at first, when I didn’t see Kate anywhere in the snow. Thankfully, I was able to follow her tracks. I followed her little chicken footprints all the way around to the back of the shed where they disappeared.

Kate was heading under the back shed to lay her eggs! This explained why I hadn’t seen one of Kate’s magnificent khaki eggs in a couple of weeks.

“That little stinker,” I thought to myself. I got down into the snow and crawled around. I couldn’t see her, so there was nothing to do but wait and dread the smell that would surely be coming from rotten eggs this spring.

When I saw that Kate finally returned to the coop later that day, I did a mean thing. I went out to the shed and covered her entryway with some spare fencing.

The next morning, when I opened the coop, it was another miserable morning, but I watched Kate as she took off and headed to her shed. She couldn’t get in and was visibly stressed. I spent the better part of that morning trying to convince her to go back to the coop to lay her egg.

I spent the better part of the next day doing the same. I didn’t want to leave her out there alone too much, as without the leaves on the trees, she was in a pretty exposed area, and we have had a couple of hawk attacks in the past. On the third day, I was growing weary, but I spent a good deal of that day tracking and coaxing Kate.

I was late on a deadline at work, so I was hoping Kate was going to accept the reality of the situation. How do you explain to your supervisor that you didn’t finish some work yet because you have a difficult chicken?

Thankfully, after three days of stubbornness, Kate accepted her fate to lay her eggs in the next boxes with everyone else. Kate’s beautiful eggs are back in the daily collection. Her little khaki eggs are like beautiful works of art to me.

Kate’s egg is the beautiful khaki brown on the right.

The morning after I finished drafting this story about Kate, she discovered she could fly over the gate. When I saw her do this my shoulders slumped, and I let out a sigh.

I can see that Kate is going to teach me things about behavior and about myself. This is one of my favorite things about raising animals—the learning. I am just going to have hope against hope that I can teach Kate some things too.