In the early '90s, we spent a few weeks each summer on the North Fork of Long Island -- not the tony tine on the ocean side where the Hamptons are located, but its less well known counterpart on the Sound. The area was relatively rural, and there wasn't much to do but swim. So, for entertainment (we're city folk, mind you), we'd visit a nearby farm. Our daughter was a toddler
at the time and she'd race around -- from the pastures to the chicken run -- holding out tufts of grass and calling to the animals to come and be fed. Surprisingly, the animals always responded, though they were free-range, with grass at their feet.
The farm was just like the ones in the storybooks. Once upon a time, the resemblance wouldn't have been unusual -- the tales were based in reality after all -- but then farming changed, and storybooks didn't. Not that you would have expected them to. Is there any tale of a modern factory farm that a child could bear to hear?
A vast, mechanized operation, the factory farm is ugly, smelly and inhumane -- a place not to visit but avoid. And the benign-seeming egg farm is no exception. In certain respects, it may even be worse.
Egg factories cram hundreds of thousands (or even millions) of hens into tiny cages where there is not enough room for them to spread their wings, let alone walk. The cages are stacked to optimize use of the space, causing droppings to rain down on birds in lower tiers. Ventilation is inadequate and hens never see the light of day.
The stressful conditions can lead hens to peck their neighbors, often to the point of harm or death. Therefore, most are subject to a painful process called debeaking, in which the tips of their beaks are cut off with a hot blade. No anesthetic is used.
Feed, more often than not, contains animal by-products that are not a normal part of a chicken's diet, including poultry blood, feathers, urine and excrement. And food may be denied in order to manipulate the laying cycle in a process called "forced molting." Male chicks, which can't produce eggs and are not the right breed for meat, are killed.
It doesn't take an animal lover to see that there's something wrong here. Common ethics demands more humane treatment. In fact, so does the Animal Welfare Act, but the classes of animals to which it applies -- such as those exhibited in zoos or used for research -- do not include animals raised for food.
Animal welfare isn't the only problem with egg factories. There's also antibiotic abuse. In many facilities, hens get a daily cocktail of antibiotics to promote growth and to prevent (not treat) disease. This medically unnecessary use of antibiotics on hens and other livestock is contributing to the rise of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can threaten human health.
Pesticide use on egg farms is another problem. The chemicals are applied to the chicken houses, litter, manure pits, feed and even hens. Not only are some of these chemicals toxic to poultry, they are also harmful to wildlife and humans when they end up in nearby streams. Animal waste from the farms can also land in waterways, and fumes from the waste pollute the air.
It's a bad situation from every angle, and government has barely addressed it. As a consumer, however, you can get the ball rolling by showing your preferences for humanely, sustainably produced eggs. The trick is recognizing which those are. Ignore the "Animal Care Certified" label, which is an industry designation that 85 percent of eggs now bear. While it does confirm that the producer followed a set of standards, those standards hardly qualify as humane.
Instead, look for eggs that bear two labels:
1) The "Organic" label, which guarantees that hens are raised without pesticides and receive only organic feed; and
2) The "Certified Humane" label (found at these locations), which verifies that hens are raised in conditions that allow them to engage in their natural behaviors (such as nesting and perching), are provided with sufficient space and shelter, are supplied with a healthy diet free of antibiotics and hormones, and are handled gently to minimize stress. (This precludes debeaking, of course.) Where "Certified Humane" eggs are unavailable, "Free Farmed Certified" eggs are another good choice.
Note the difference between the two types of labels. "Organic" primarily addresses use of chemicals and additives in the farming system whereas "Certified Humane" and "Free Farmed Certified" programs are concerned chiefly with animal welfare. There is some overlap between them (e.g., neither allows antibiotics), but they are not the same. So, while each type of label is good on its own, the two in combination are better.
But labels aren't everything. At the farmer's market, you may find small
organic farmers who can't spare funds for certification, but are happy to have
you visit their farms to see their well-cared-for, pasture-fed hens. That's
where I got my last half-dozen eggs. They were fresh-laid from a Chilean breed
of chicken, with beautiful blue shells. The flavor -- not incidentally -- was
Sheryl Eisenberg, a long-time advisor to NRDC, posts a new This Green Life every month. Sheryl makes her home in Tribeca (NYC), wherealong with her children, Sophie and Gabby, and husband, Petershe tries to put her environmental principles into practice. No fooling. Read more about Sheryl.
ECO-CLAIMS ABOUND -- BUT WHAT DO THEY MEAN?
The USDA regulates the meaning of these terms:
• Organic - animals were raised without antibiotics, hormones or pesticides; received 100 percent organic food; and had access to the outdoors.
• Free range and free roaming - animals had access to the outdoors.
• Natural - no artificial ingredients or coloring were added and processing was minimal.
• No hormones - no hormones were used on the hens, which is an illegal practice in any case.
• No antibiotics - no antibiotics were used.
Other terms, such as "cage-free" and "vegetarian fed," are unregulated and therefore unverifiable -- i.e., they may or may not be true.
Certified Raised & Handled is a private label administered by the non-profit group Humane Farm Animal Care. A farm seeking the label must pass annual inspections proving that it meets the group's stringent animal care standards. The USDA verifies the inspection process.
Natural affinity. When my daughter was small, she loved chickens because she could hold them in her arms.
--------------------------------- Sheryl Eisenberg is a web developer and writer. With her firm, Mixit Productions (http://www.mixitproductions.com), she brought NRDC online in 1996, designed NRDC's first websites, and continues to develop special web features for NRDC. She created and, for several years, wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists' green living column, Greentips, and has designed and contributed content to many nonprofit sites.