(continued from The Misunderstood EGG)
So, we’ve settled the should-we-or-shouldn’t-we debate: We’re cleared to eat eggs again (at least until the next report reverses this dictum). If only that were the end of the discussion, but it’s really just the beginning. Where once you had only to choose between large or extra large, now the dizzying array of options include white or brown, conventional or organic, cage-free or free-range, organic or enriched-colony (see “The Claims Department”). And unlike the nutrition issue, in these choices we don’t have scientific evidence to steer us definitively one way or another. Ultimately, they are a matter of your budget, your ethics and/or the point at which the two intersect.
BUT FIRST: A SHORT HISTORY LESSON
According to a report by the United Egg Producers, “as late as the 1940s, small backyard flocks of chickens made up the majority of the egg-producing industry.” Though raised organically and free-range (insofar as we’ve come to know those terms) they were also “continuously subjected to disease, freezing or heat stress, predators, poisoning, and infighting,” and they stopped producing eggs during the winter molting season. Still the high ratio of egg producers to consumers meant the backyard flocks could keep up with demand, even when accounting for disease and seasonal loss.
As the American population migrated from rural to urban areas, the ratio of egg-producing farms to consumers dropped and forced the producers to adjust their practices to meet demand as efficiently as possible. Thus, the system now referred to as “caged” or “conventional” emerged. Most notably for the producers, “it eliminated most diseases of the 1940s, provided the hens with protection against the weather (environmentally controlled housing) and predators, while also improving food safety [sanitation],” by removing the birds from exposure to their own feces and the parasites that come with it. It also allowed farmers to house many more birds in a fraction of the space, to feed them less food and to manipulate their natural molting habits and laying frequencies, all while keeping prices around 5 to 10 cents per egg.
FAST-FORWARD A FEW DECADES
Farmers and animal-welfare advocates, alike, are now questioning whether the industrial techniques that enable such large-scale production are humane and environmentally friendly. Also at issue is the effect it has on the quality, flavor and nutrition of the eggs. And so the pendulum has begun to swing back: Small and large producers—driven, as always, by increased consumer scrutiny—are looking for ways to balance animal- welfare while keeping up with demand.
“The industry is trying to decide, from an animal welfare standpoint, what type of housing system is appropriate for the hens,” says Andy Wilcox, whose family has been in the egg business for 100 years and currently produces 77,000 dozen eggs a day at four facilities in Washington state. “Originally we were all cage-free; we went conventional in the ’60s [to combat the disease issues],” he says. In a conventional system, as many as eight birds share a 360-square-inch cage in which they’re unable to sit down, spread their wings or turn around.
In 2004, Wilcox traveled to Europe to research a new aviary housing system that allows hens to engage in many of their natural behaviors—such as dust-bathing and perching—in an indoor, free-range environment, while also allowing for daily manure removal. “Not only is it humane, it’s extremely sanitary,” says Wilcox. “When we saw those things come together…those concerns we formerly had with cage-free systems were no longer there.” The aviary system allows the birds to be outside for eight hours every day.
In 2006, Wilcox Farms started the conversion process from conventional to free-range with help from Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), an independent animal-welfare organization that issues the Certified Humane stamp. Among its board members is animal-rights pioneer Temple Grandin. “We feel the Humane Farm Animal Care certification is the most reliable,” says Wilcox. “We know they’re good because the audits are challenging and rigorous.”
Some farms even go beyond the free-range or cage-free designations to receive a “Pasture Raised” seal, which requires 108 square feet of open-grazing pasture per laying hen. Unlike hens classified as cage-free and even free-range—who might spend almost all their time inside barns with limited or no access to the outdoors—certified pasture-raised hens spend daylight hours outside. At night when the hens return to their cage-free barns to roost, the farmers move the fencing so that the hens always have fresh pasture for grazing.
“There are three reasons pasture-raised eggs are different,” says Matt O’Hayer, founder of Vital Farms, a network of 56 small pasture-raising farms in five states. “The first is animal welfare. You give birds pasture, they’re able to do things like run around, dust-bathe and be the omnivores they are. They eat more than just grass. They love running. They love playing. They chase each other,” he says.
The second difference: The chickens and the eggs are healthier. “When they consume pasture, the hens are getting huge amounts of omega-3 and vitamin A naturally.” And that, he says, is what drives the third differentiator of pasture-raised eggs, which is taste. “Customers who are paying up to $6 or more per dozen for pasture-raised eggs know the difference,” says O’Hayer.
AND THERE’S THE RUB
Today’s enriched-colony techniques are modern adaptations of the more traditional pre-1940s system, but they come at prices not everyone nor economies of scale can afford. Farmers like Wilcox and O’Hayer understand that and applaud grocers who are expanding their egg cases to give consumers plenty of options. And, we can hope, as demand grows, prices will drop to make humanely raised food more accessible to everyone. For now, Wilcox says: “There are a lot of things you can call
greenwashing, but this is a legitimate change in how animals are cared for. It’s not just a marketing gimmick. It’s a total change in how we treat our livestock.”
Katz adds that conscious consumerism is, ultimately, better for everybody. “In general, when we make better dietary choices, they end up being better for us, the animals and the planet,” he says. “We all win when we eat the right thing.”