I did not grow up on a farm or even spend much time on one until two years ago. As a child, I was always fascinated with raising livestock, perhaps as a result of the wild west movies and TV shows that my father liked. The thrill of saddling up your horse, driving cattle across wild and undiscovered pastures, and the masterful skill it takes to raise cattle, sheep, and goats, were just a few of the black and white frames that made an impression on my young mind.
I started my legal career as most lawyers do, a bright-eyed and ambitious first-year associate at a law firm. Although I relished the opportunity to work on a wide variety of civil cases, I kept dreaming of life on the farm and raising livestock.
Fast forward several years later, and this California girl has traded in her high heels and tailored suit for rubber boots and ripped jeans.
It all started in 2015 when I left the West Coast to do a Masters of
Law (LL.M.) in Agriculture and Food Law at the University of Arkansas School of Law. Soon I joined the program’s faculty and took on a number of related teaching roles. I also became an advocate for beginning farmers, working to develop resources that can help make sure new farmers can find access to land, create viable business plans, and gain the knowledge they need to produce food.
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It wasn’t along until I started farming—or learning how to, anyway. I am a partner with Ozark Pasture Beef, an operation based here in Fayetteville, Arkansas, that offers grass-fed, pasture-raised beef, lamb, and goat to local restaurants and customers. We also have a small flock of egg-laying hens.
Now that I have dug deeper and deeper into agriculture, both as a lawyer and as a producer, I understand so much more about the way our food is made and regulated. It seems that one of the biggest issues impacting our food system today is the tension between many consumers’ desire to learn more about where their food comes from and the lack of clear and dependable information that can help them achieve that goal. Although many companies have taken an altruistic tack and opened their barn doors to curious consumers, others have used it as a keen marketing opportunity.
What’s a good example? Eggs.
Next time you’re in the supermarket, take a gander at the many different label claims that adorn egg cartons these days. In some cases, there are so many label claims and descriptions slapped onto the carton that it’s difficult to find the company’s name or to discern the difference between competitors.
As children across the country are busy dyeing Easter eggs or anxiously awaiting their race through the backyard in search of plastic eggs full of candy, it’s a good opportunity to unscramble egg carton labels and to see whether some of these claims are really all they’re cracked up to be.
Animal Raising Claims
The first major set of claims refers to how the egg-laying hens are raised. The FDA is the agency responsible for regulating shell eggs, while the USDA handles food items that involved eggs that have been cracked open and processed. Currently, the FDA has no official definition or regulation regarding the use of terms like cage-free or pastured on egg cartons.
Despite this, it’s not quite a free-for-all. The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetics Act requires the FDA to ensure that foods under its jurisdiction are not misbranded. One of the types of misbranding identified in the statute is information on a product’s label that is false or misleading. So, if a company uses battery cages but labels its eggs as pasture-raised, the FDA could step in and require the company to revise its label.
Also, if an egg producer wants to have its eggs graded through the USDA’s Shell Egg Grading Service, Agricultural Marketing Service will check and verify any animal raising claims like “cage free.”
All the squawking about cage free eggs began around 2008 when California voters passed a ballot initiative that required producers to provide increased space for laying hens, effectively banning the use of battery cages, which provide each hen roughly 67-77 square inches of space. That’s smaller than a standard-sized sheet of paper. The state then passed a bill that required any egg sold in the state to comply with these requirements even if it was produced out-of-state.
Today, at least five states have passed similar laws banning the use of battery cages. Many companies have seen this as a clear change in the tide of consumer demand, announcing that they are going to move away from battery cages. Cal-Maine Foods, the largest producer of shell eggs in the US, is no longer building new chicken houses with battery cages. Although 90% of its production still uses them, when those facilities wear out they will be replaced with either cage-free housing or enriched colony cages allowing the birds more space.
Here’s a clear comparison between the three main animal raising labels found on egg cartons:
• Cage-Free – Many consumers falsely assume these means the birds have access to the outdoors. They don’t. This claim simply means that the birds are not kept in cages. They are still confined in large houses, often in high-density.
• Free-Range – In general, free-range indicates that the birds have at least some access to the outdoors but it may be only a screened porch area.
• Pastured or Pasture-Raised – The birds have access to the outdoors and are allowed to forage. To keep predators at bay, they may be shooed into a secure building a night. (Read more about a pastured meat chicken operation here.)
There are many third-party animal welfare certification companies that have adopted their own definitions for each of these terms, like Certified Humane. Until the FDA creates an official definition, however, the only safeguard against nefarious labeling practices will be through claims brought against companies that their labels are misleading consumers.
The second major set of claims has to do with how the hens were fed. But before we dive into these labels, we need to dispel a serious misconception about our favorite avian egg layers. They are not vegetarians. Chickens are omnivores. Just last week, I witnessed one of my hens snatch an unsuspecting mouse running through the barn and devour it as her flock mates looked on with envy. Chickens will eat bugs, rodents, roadkill, and even their own eggs if they aren’t collected from the nest boxes quickly enough.
• Vegetarian Fed – Today, this is the most common diet-related claim on egg cartons. Not only is this claim an inaccurate reflection of a hen’s preferred menu, a vegetarian diet can have nutritional consequences for birds. Without enough protein and amino acids, chickens will look to any source they can find, sometimes even cannibalizing each other. Last year, The Wall Street Journal attempted to dispel this myth. But egg companies keep slapping this diet claim on egg cartons and many consumers keep assuming that a vegetarian-fed hen is superior.
• Soy-Free – This claim means that the hens were not fed any feed containing soy or soy byproducts. If you’re allergic to soy, then this may appeal to you. According to the USDA, there is no evidence that hens fed soy products pass on any of the allergenicity aspects to the eggs.
Egg producers can claim that their eggs are antibiotic-free as long as they can provide documentation that they did not provide any antibiotics to the birds during the pullet stage (basically a teenage chicken) or while the adult hens are laying. Although organic producers must adhere to a strict antibiotic-free standard, conventional producers are allowed to use three approved antibiotics within agency-determined limits. The FDA also has protocols in place to ensure that the eggs do not contain antibiotic residues. The issue is much bigger in the broiler world, where antibiotics are often administered at subtherapeutic doses to promote weight gain and rapid growth.
Since I started raising my own egg-laying hens, I’ve taken to storing my eggs on the counter, partly to enjoy the beautiful bouquet of shell colors, sizes, and patterns that the birds produce and partly to see whether Americans are falsely aflutter about keeping eggs cold.
Travel to many foreign countries and you may notice that folks store their eggs in a basket on their kitchen counters–not in the refrigerator. Eggs are also stocked in the center aisle of most European supermarkets. For many Americans, the idea of keeping eggs unrefrigerated is not only shocking, it’s a food safety risk.
This 2014 article from NPR does a great job of explaining the cultural differences. As it notes, the primary difference has to do with how the eggs are treated to address bacteria and contamination, particularly salmonella. In the US, food safety regulations require that eggs are washed soon after laying to remove any bacterial contamination from the shell. Although this is an effective way to thwart bacteria, it also rinses away an extremely thin, barely visible membrane that naturally protects the egg. That membrane keeps oxygen and water in the egg and keeps bacteria out. To address this, we coat eggs with oil to discourage bacteria and put them in the fridge to keep the bacteria at bay.
In many European countries and other locations that eschew cold storage, the hens are vaccinated against salmonella. Although US producers can also administer vaccinations, the regulations still require washing, cold storage, and a slew of additional food safety standards.
What about all those Male Chicks . . .
In the egg-laying industry, male chicks, which grow up to become roosters, are an unwanted by-product. They cannot be repurposed as meat birds, because the broiler industry has adopted such specific and unyielding standards for the type of birds it raises, preferring cornish crosses and other rapid-growing breeds.
An accepted agricultural practice in the egg-laying industry, male chicks are usually either macerated in a high-speed grinder 1-2 days after hatching, or they are gassed. Most consumers are shocked to learn about male chicks’ fate, but without a clear logistics plan or financial incentive for the industry to find a purpose for these birds, this remains the industry standard and the most economical solution.
Recently, major international food brands company Unilever announced its dedication to finding a better way to handle male chicks in the egg-laying industry. It’s turned to technology to find an answer, looking for a way to sex eggs during the embryo stage, before they hatch as fully formed birds.
So, next time you’re cruising through the supermarket picking up some eggs, or any other food item for that matter, remember that appearances can be deceiving and there’s often much more to a label than what you may expect.