While it’s well-documented that industrial egg farming is a controversial business (cue Food Inc), and there are a slew of egg purveyors who are rushing to do better with USDA organic options, there’s still a lot of murkiness around how laying hens are actually treated, and the conditions in which they are raised. Like free-range. For us, that’s always conjured images of hens that are, ya know, home on the range, but the reality of the claim—which actually is one regulated by the USDA—is not very bucolic. It’s really, really confusing stuff—and honestly, best solved by checking in on the companies whose eggs you most frequently buy to understand exactly how their hens are treated (we use Vital Farms or eggs from the farmer’s market at goop). Below, some information on what the labels mean, as well as some companies who seem to be doing the right thing, care of Adele Douglass, the Executive Director of Humane Farm Animal Care. As far as third party certification programs, their Certified Humane seal is the most widely recognized and respected in the industry.
This label is regulated by the USDA. According to the USDA, “Organic is a labeling term that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.” While we found a reference on the USDA blog to organic eggs coming from hens who have liberal access to the outdoors, this doesn’t always seem to be the case. “Outdoor access means nothing,” explains Douglass. “It doesn’t mean the hens actually go outdoors—this could mean that there’s a little door, that if the farmer were to open the door they could “access” the outdoors. There are actually no space requirements.” For example, according to Whole Foods website, their 365 brand organic cage-free (see below for more on cage-free) eggs come from hens who live in a hen house, under a blend of artificial and natural light. There’s no mention of any of those hens actually going outside.
Again, this doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how a hen is treated—but it does mean that the hens are fed a diet that is free from GMOs. That does not mean that the food is organic.
So hens aren’t officially vegetarians. When given pasture access, they eat worms and grubs, etc. This essentially means that the feed they’re given doesn’t have animal byproducts, like ground up chicken, or who knows what else.
This label is regulated by the USDA, and means what it suggests: “Hens can move freely within the building/hen house, and have unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.” As Douglass points out, there are no space requirements. For Certified Humane status, “there must be 1.5 square feet per hen, litter for dust bathing, perches for the birds, and ammonia levels at a maximum of 10ppm, which means the scent is imperceptible.” While a life lived completely indoors seems like a horrible thing, Douglass acknowledges that in many parts of the country, the weather just doesn’t allow for outdoor access all year long.
This label is also regulated by the USDA, and acknowledges “continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle, which may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.” As mentioned in organic, it doesn’t actually stipulate what that outdoor access really means, or how much space is required. “Anyone can put free-range on their labels,” explains Douglass. “That’s precisely why we made a specific standard.” For Certified Humane, this means that free-range hens have a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per bird.
This is not regulated by the USDA, “due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems.” But this is the bucolic life of a hen that you’re imagining, so long as certain criteria are met. For Certified Humane, it’s 108-square-feet per bird, which is the same standard adopted by Animal Welfare Approved. It mirrors the mandate used in Europe, which was established by the British Soil Society in 1946. According to Douglass, “It’s based on science: you don’t ruin the land because you divide your acreage into fifths and rotate the flock so they don’t completely denude the ground.” Currently, Vital Farms is the only egg purveyor that is accredited as Pasture Raised by Certified Humane.
“Natural means nothing,” says Douglass. Per the USDA, “Meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. However, the natural label does not include any standards regarding farm practices and only applies to processing of meat and egg products. There are no standards or regulations for the labeling of natural food products if they do not contain meat or eggs.”
So here’s a funny thing: Federal regulations have never allowed the use of hormones or steroids in poultry, pork, or goats. You want to look out for a label that indicates that no antibiotics were used.
This is also not regulated by the USDA. Besides Humane Farm Animal Care, which operates under the Certified Humane seal and looks after farm animals and food production (you can see their full list of recipients here, who must be reassessed annually), there’s also Animal Welfare Approved, which focuses on smaller purveyors (farmers can’t have a flock of more than 500 birds). “That is a very positive thing,” explains Douglass.
We asked Adele Douglass for a shortlist of companies—both big and small—that are making strides in hen welfare.
The organic eggs from Costco brand Kirkland are Certified Humane: While not pasture raised, they’re cage- and antibiotic-free. They’ve partnered with several small family farms throughout the country, which guarantees peace of mind for Costco and gives these smaller purveyors a steady stream of business.
Vital Farms is kicking ass in the egg business. They work with small family-run farms, and have their own operations, too, which are scattered throughout the warmer states, like California and Georgia, which is how they’re the only company to receive a Pasture-Raised designation from Certified Humane. The hens spend the daylight hours outside—with at least 108 square feet per bird—where they’re rotated from pasture to pasture (see above on why this is so important). And then they’re gathered up at night to sleep in hen houses to stay safe from predators. The difference between the various Vital Farms cartons—and subsequently in the price-points—is in the feed: Vital Farms Organic Eggs and Pasture Verde eggs (USDA organic feed, which means that from day two of life, these hens have been fed organic, non-GMO feed); Backyard Eggs (Feed is not organic but still non-GMO); Alfresco Eggs and Texas Chicken Ranch (the hens receive the same pasture-raised status, but feed is standard).
As far as major grocery retailers go, Safeway is setting a pretty high bar for humane egg production, a banner they took up in 2008. Their cage-free eggs—Lucerne, O-Organics, and Open Nature—all meet HFAC’s standards for hen welfare.
The original Pete & Jerry’s is a fourth generation organic farm in New Hampshire that’s been in business for over 60 years. To expand the distribution of their cage-free, organic eggs, they’ve enlisted 30 more family farms just like theirs—most are in Pennsylvania—to team up.
According to Douglass, the family who runs Nellie’s—also a part of Pete & Jerry’s egg farming family—are “nice, nice people.” Who can’t get behind that? In 2013, they also became the first B-Corp certified egg provider in the US, which means they are 100% committed to sustainable business practices and the welfare of their employees.
The Wilcox sustainable farm in Washington has been supplying the Pacific Northwest with eggs since 1909. In 2005, they began the process of becoming 100% cage-free. They also produce a non-GMO line.
Illinois-based Phil’s has been a cage-free farm since 1959. The other focus here is on wholesome feeding methods, which result in the best possible tasting eggs. Over the years, they’ve developed a corn and soybeans “recipe” (both are grown on the farm) which is then mixed with alfalfa and kelp for optimal nutritional value of the hens.
Stiebrs Farms in Washington has been operated by the same family for over 60 years and does everything from producing organic, non-GMO feed to packaging to marketing in-house. Like Vital Farms and Wilcox, they also offer several tiers of eggs—organic, pasture raised, and cage-free—at different price points.