A few days ago, I was sipping coffee at Starbucks in the midst of a marathon writing session when, suddenly, I was confronted by a mad case of the hangries. So, I bought an egg wrap that was advertised as ‘cage-free’. Curious, I asked the barista about it: I had heard of free-run and free-range eggs before, but never ‘cage-free’ – and I was a bit wary that this could be like the ‘dolphin-friendly’ tuna labels that sound nice but don’t really mean anything (more on that some other time). Unfortunately, the barista also did not know anything about the ‘cage-free’ title or how Starbucks sources its eggs. She thrust a pamphlet into my hands, hoping that would satisfy me, and understandably moved on to the cue of other customers anxiously awaiting their lattes.
There are a lot of egg labels out there: free-run, free-range, cage-free, and organic – to name a few. What do the labels mean and which is the best? This week, I sought to distinguish good and bad egg labels.
When it comes to egg labels, there are a lot that mean very little and a few that convey a lot. Farm fresh, all natural, no hormones and no antibiotics egg labels are all meaningless. While Omega-3 eggs and vegetarian fed eggs may be healthier for you, they are not a more ethical choice according to any of the other three values that you might wish to consider (animal welfare, labour rights, and the environment). If you value animal welfare, slightly better choices include cage-free, free-run, and free-range. These are not your best option because they are not independently verifiable, but they are better than no label at all. Finally, Canadian certified organic eggs are a strong choice for animal welfare.
There may be a tradeoff between animal welfare and environmental outcomes, as well as working conditions, as cage-free systems in some cases can worsen each of these. This claim remains contested and probably depends on the specific conditions of different farming systems, unfortunately. For an environmentally friendly option, try the Land Food People Foundation’s certified local sustainable label.
My go-to egg choice is the PC Organics Free-Run Eggs produced in Canada. Although the free-run label itself isn’t independently verifiable, the Canada organic label assures animal welfare standards.
EGGSPECTATIONS: FOUR ISSUES YOU MAY WANT TO CONSIDER
When you buy eggs, or products with eggs in them, there are at least four related ethical concerns that you may wish to consider: animal cruelty, health, labour rights and the environment. Below, I explain some key considerations of each.
1. Animal Cruelty.
The meat industry in Canada is large, killing approximately 650 million animals each year (most of which are chickens). Although egg farming does not necessarily result in the slaughter of chickens, animal cruelty is perhaps the most well known ethical issue relating to egg farming, especially after the 2013 scandal on Alberta egg farms. Animal cruelty concerns refer to the conditions in which egg laying chickens are kept.
What are the laws on animal cruelty on Canadian farms? First, there is a general prohibition on animal cruelty: the Criminal Code of Canada (s.446) prohibits anyone from willfully causing animals to suffer from neglect, pain or injury. However, these generalized cruelty laws were not made to regulate farming specifically and are only rarely used to prosecute livestock producers, in cases of particularly egregious abuse. There are two other federal laws pertaining to animal cruelty on farms, relating only to very specific circumstances: during transport and slaughter. The Health of Animals Act includes measures to protect animals from undue suffering during transport and loading, while the Meat Inspection Act protects food animals from undue harm during handling and slaughter.
Provinces and territories have the primary responsibility for protecting the welfare of animals (including farm animals) and have enacted animal welfare laws as well as groups to enforce these laws (usually, the province’s SPCA and Ministry of Agriculture inspectors). However, enforcement is drastically underfunded and understaffed, which means that very few farms are actually inspected. For a good briefing on animal cruelty law on Canadian farms, click here.
An estimated 95% to 98% of eggs produced in Canada and the U.S. come from hens in ‘battery cages’ (the tiny cages you see in animal cruelty videos). Generally, if you don’t see a label stating otherwise you can assume that the eggs were probably from battery cages. The main egg labels pertaining to animal cruelty are cage-free, free-run, free-range, and some certified organic labels. (More on this below)
Another issue that you might consider prioritizing when you choose which eggs to buy relates to your own health. As such, some egg producers advertise production choices that might not be better for the chicken but can be better for you. For example, some eggs are now Omega-3 enriched. Another example is the ‘vegetarian-fed’ eggs, which essentially just means that the chickens are not fed ‘wasted protein’. This might not mean that the chicken lives in better conditions, but it is arguably safer for you to consume.
Like other foods, some eggs are certified as organic. Some people eat organic eggs to minimize risk of exposure to antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or pesticides. Are organic eggs really healthier? Evidence is mixed. For example, one source suggests that there isn’t much of a difference, while another suggests that organic eggs usually have higher nutrient quality.
3. Labour rights.
If you’re a John Oliver fan like I am, you’ll remember his coverage of labour violations in the U.S. chicken farming industry. In other horrific labour news, police recently broke up a slave-labor ring in Ohio farm, where teenagers were forced to work on egg farms.
What about Canadian eh-ggs?
Some fun facts about the Canadian egg farming industry (in 2013):
- There were 1 021 registered egg farms in Canada, over a third of which are in Ontario.
- The average flock size was 2 255 hens (although the size of egg farms ranges from a few hundred to more than 400 000 hens!)
- The average hen produces 305 eggs per year (which means that the average egg farm produces 687 775 eggs per year!)
Canada has a supply management system for its egg farming (which includes production management, import controls, and pricing mechanisms). Check out the Egg Farmers of Canada website for market information such as reports on egg prices, production, and imports. Through this supply management system, Canadian egg farmers are guaranteed a fair price for their eggs – although a downside of supply management schemes is that this jacks up the price for consumers. I wasn’t able to find stats for egg production specifically but, as an example, the average Canadian household spends an extra $100 on dairy products each year due to dairy quotas. So, supply management has its downsides (even though the Canadian Egg Farmers claim that the main effect of supply management is to handle price volatility, which is a fair point).
There does not seem to be the same level of abuses occurring on Canadian egg farms. From my scan of the Internet, it seems that there are two main concerns. First, many farms include unpaid family workers (children from the family). In Alberta, there was some debate over whether these workers should be eligible for Workers’ Compensation. Second, farm workers are paid below average wages, around $10 000 annually (although these stats should be viewed with caution, as this is often for part-time or seasonal work). In any event, labour rights issues on Canadian egg farms seem benign, relative to our American neighbours. As such, you may wish to stick with Canadian eggs. You can usually find a little maple leaf on the package to indicate that your eggs are Canadian.
Lastly, cage-free/free-run systems may expose labourers to more pollutants in some instances, posing a potential tradeoff between labour rights and animal welfare.
4. The environment.
Finally, you may want to consider the environment in your egg buying choices - although there is less out there on the environmental impact of egg farming. Indeed, there is a key dilemma at play: what’s best for the environment may not be best for the chicken. Industrial farming has led to fewer greenhouse gas emissions despite growing egg production; this has been made possible by effective manure management and improved feed efficiency, which is easiest with battery cages. However, if cage-free systems are able to manage urine and feces effectively and if fewer chickens die prematurely this may be better for the environment. The overall impact is unclear, to my mind.
There are sustainable options out there – although it seems the emphasis in big labeling schemes has been on health and animal welfare. Certified local sustainable is an independently verified Canadian egg labeling scheme which targets sustainable farming practices.
There are a couple of cool environmental initiatives in the Canadian egg industry. In February 2014, the Egg Farmers of Alberta launched PEEP – the Producer Environmental Egg Program – to help egg farmers better identify their impact on the environment. Check out its first report. Also in 2014, the Egg Farmers of Canada entered into a partnership with green energy provider Bullfrog Power for its offices (actually, EFC has been internationally recognized for its socially responsible initiatives).
LABELS: GOOD AND BAD EGGS
What do egg labels really mean?
Bad Egg Labels
Watch out for misleading labels. Some labels, such as ‘farm fresh’, ‘omega-3’ and ‘fed vegetarian feed’, do not indicate anything about animal welfare. As such, the Vancouver Humane Society has called them ‘misleading’. Misleading labels include:
- Farm fresh: this label is, in practical terms, meaningless. It conveys no information about the production process.
- All natural: this label also has no real meaning.
- Animal friendly, country fresh, naturally raised: these, too, do not guarantee any type of production standard.
- No antibiotics: antibiotics are very rarely used in the egg industry anyway, so this label does not indicate much.
- No hormones: in Canada, hormones are only approved for use in cows, so this label does not mean anything if you are purchasing eggs.
Some labels do have a specific meaning – they aren’t ‘misleading’ – but they also don’t indicate ethical production practices and as such are included here as bad egg labels.
- Omega-3: this means that the egg is enriched with Omega-3 – healthier for you, but not more humane or environmentally friendly.
- Vegetarian-fed: the chicken was not fed wasted protein – healthier for you, but not more humane or environmentally friendly.
Better Egg Labels
These ‘better egg labels’ mean that the producer claims to meet certain animal welfare standards in their farming practices. With these labels, there is no independent verification (although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has set guidelines defining what these mean and could investigate a farm that does not meet this definition, if a complaint is made). So, while these labels are a step up from the bad egg labels they are still not an ideal choice:
- Cage-free: the eggs from cage-free farms do not put hens in the battery cages in which almost all egg laying hens are kept. So, it’s a step up! But cage-free can still mean that the birds live in crowded aviaries, which may not give them much more space. (To tie this in with the introductory bit, I’ll note that the move to ‘cage-free’ eggs by Starbucks is part of a broader shift in its animal welfare policy).
- Free-run: similar to cage-free labels, this means that the hens run free in an ‘open concept’ barn (no cages).
- Free-range: this is similar to free-run eggs, but it also means the chickens can go outdoors.
Best Egg Labels
These are the only labels that are independently verified to meet clear ethical production standards:
- Canada Organic: organic products in Canada must be certified according to Canadian Organic Standards and Regulations. Under these regulations, battery cages are prohibited, there are minimum space requirements, access to the outdoors is required, and certain amenities for chicken welfare (such as nest boxes, perches, and bedding material) are required. There is also an array of other requirements – for example, GMOs are not permitted under the standards, nor are synthetic pesticides or irradiation. The David Suzuki Foundation recognizes this as the best choice.
- There are a number of other organic certifications, each of which has different standards. Before you buy, you should research organics standards to see what its standards are. As an example, the USDA National Organic Program is similar to the Canada organic label. These eggs come from cage-free hens fed organic feed. Notably, this does not include labour standards.
- SPCA Certified: this program independently verifies similar animal welfare standards as with the organics label. However, it does not require the use of organic feed (and some other requirements).
- Certified local sustainable: a small (and relatively new) certification scheme run by Local Food Plus, this label encompasses sustainable farming practices and actions toward greenhouse gas emissions reduction in its standards. If you can find a retailer with this label, it is a good environmental option.