Free-range, cage-free, and even organic don’t mean what you think they mean when it comes to eggs. Even in the E.U., where labeling laws are stricter, organic egg-producing hens are given just 1.8 square feet each. The law also says these lucky chickens must be given access to outside land, but the available outdoor space only needs to be 43 square feet—and that’s for an entire barn.
"There are up to 50,000 hens in a barn," says Betsy Babcock, of Handsome Brook Farm. "In the U.S., the requirement for outdoor access is meaningless. It can be a narrow strip of grass or a concrete pad."
Babcock’s answer is pasture-raised eggs. These are eggs produced the way you imagine eggs should be produced. The hens get two square feet each when indoors, and have wooden perches and room to move. It’s no petting zoo—if that’s what you want, you should probably turn vegan, but it’s not bad either. The hens also get real outdoor access, with grass and the ability to forage, with 109 square feet per chicken. Much less than that, Babcock told Co.Exist, and the "grass turns to dirt."
Egg production, like food production in general, seems to be a game of minimal compliance with laws, along with maximal tricking of consumers. An egg carton with "free-range" or "cage-free" printed over a photo some chickens in a green pasture is enough to assuage the conscience of many a guilt-wracked egg buyer, but in reality the hens are still stuffed into factories.
Pasture-raised eggs are what happens when a producer decides that they really do care about the welfare of the animals. Betsy and her husband Brian opened a bed and breakfast in 2007, three and a half hours from New York City. They had six chickens, and the children of guests would gather eggs every morning. Guests loved them, and the Babcocks started selling them in a New York store. That’s when they named them pasture-raised, and their Handsome Brook Farm brand got picked up and stocked by a supermarket chain.
"We had a choice," Babcock says, "whether to become huge and buy hundreds of thousands of chickens, or to go with a contract model." They chose the latter, and now 60 farms produce eggs for Handsome Brook Farm, which are stocked in 4,000 locations. By the end of this year, that number will be 250 farms. The company now employs full-time veterinarians, as well as technicians to help member farms and also to ensure compliance.
People clearly like the taste and the ethics of Babcock’s eggs, but what’s to stop less scrupulous producers from slapping the name "pasture raised" onto their packages? After all, weak as the organic or cage-free labels may be, they are at least protected by law.
Labeling law provides no official definition of pasture-raised. In fact, at least one other company is using the term without adhering to Babcock's rules. But there are also farms that do use the term and claim to provide the same outdoor space to their hens.
So even buying pasture-raised eggs is no guarantee that you’re getting eggs from hens that have actually lived outside. You can look for the Handsome Brook Farm brand, but that’s still too much homework for many consumers. Clearly the food-labeling laws need to be made clearer and less confusing.
Ratifying Babcock’s home-grown rules, which are based on existing E.U. laws, would make things a lot easier for people who want a shortcut to ethical shopping. The problem, though, is likely to be the food industry. Terms like cage-free are confusing to the consumer, but they’re a welcome tool of obfuscation to producers who mistreat animals. And as long as the food lobby heavily influences food labeling, clear and informative labels—which benefit both buyers and ethical farmers—will remain elusive.
As consumers, then, we still need to put in a little work. The good news is that, thanks to producers like the Babcocks, we don’t need to drive three hours upstate just to buy a carton of cruelty-free eggs.
Slideshow Credits: 03 / Conor Harrigan;