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Eggs – a user’s guide

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Danielle Centoni from the Oregonian recently looked at egg labeling – a full link is here -  http://www.oregonlive.com/foodday/index.ssf/2009/11/sorting_out_the_language_on_th.html

Consumers have been demanding eggs from uncaged hens for some time. But while labels such as “cage-free” and “free-range” conjure visions of happy hens hunting and pecking on pasture, the reality can be quite different (see the list below).

If the living conditions of hens are an important consideration for you, spending the extra money for eggs from small, local farms is usually your best bet. You can often find them at farmers markets, and they’re often much fresher than store-bought. As an added bonus, many small farms raise their hens on pasture, where they can forage for bugs and plants, which studies suggest makes the eggs more nutritious.

Your guide to egg labels

Cage-free
Pros: Uncaged hens can perform natural functions such as walking and stretching their wings. Cons: The hens are usually housed in large barns or warehouses with no access to the outdoors and no cap on population. There are no restrictions on feed for the birds, so they may be given feed with antibiotics, drugs, pesticides or animal byproducts. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing to ensure the hens truly are cage-free.

Free-range/free-roaming
Pros: Uncaged hens can perform natural functions and usually have some outdoor access. Cons: There are no standards for the amount, duration and quality of the outdoor access. Outdoor access is not even required, since the USDA has no defined standards for free-range egg production (meat production yes, but not eggs). There are no restrictions on feed for the birds. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

Certified organic
Pros: To earn this label, hens are required to be uncaged and have outdoor access. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian feed free of antibiotics, drugs, pesticides and animal byproducts. Because they are not given antibiotics, their living conditions are usually not as cramped. Certification is given by third-party auditors. Cons: There are no standards for the amount, duration and quality of the outdoor access. There are also no standards capping population density (although, as stated above, it’s likely conditions aren’t too cramped since the birds are not given antibiotics). Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.

Certified Humane (certifiedhumane.org):
Pros: Hens must be uncaged. They may have some outdoor access. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are standards capping population density and requiring a certain number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is not allowed. They are fed a diet free of antibiotics, hormones and animal byproducts. Certification is given by third-party auditors. Cons: Outdoor access is not required. Beak cutting is allowed.

Animal Welfare Approved (animalwelfareapproved.org):
Pros: Highest animal welfare standards of any third-party audited program. Hens are uncaged and given continuous outdoor access. There are standards capping population density and requirements for perches, space and nesting boxes. They are fed a diet free of antibiotics, hormones and animal byproducts. Birds are allowed to molt naturally and beak cutting is prohibited. Cons: No participating producers sell to supermarkets.

A few other terms

Vegetarian-fed: Feed does not contain animal byproducts. However, the hens will eat bugs if they find them.

Natural: There are no regulations or requirements for this label, so it can mean anything — or nothing.

Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters. The USDA says there is no nutritional difference between fertile and infertile eggs. However, the presence of roosters indicates the hens were likely not caged.

Omega-3 enriched: Hens are fed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, usually by supplementing the feed with flax seed. The eggs typically have about twice the amount of omega-3s as regular eggs, but at about twice the price. The eggs still only have about 225 milligrams of omega-3, compared with about 2.5 grams in just 3.5 ounces of salmon.

Now, much of the information above relates to the US market and I’m pretty sure that standards are similar in Australia. I know that battery hens are being phased our but I’m not sure of exactly when. Also, I’ve never seen eggs marked as ‘fertile’ sold for consumption in Australia. Am I wrong?

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