Bad Egg (Labels)

Pictured: the brochure that was thrust into my hands. It does not contain any information about Starbucks' egg sourcing, nor is this information easily available anywhere on the company's website. Starbucks is certainly not alone in this regard.

Pictured: the brochure that was thrust into my hands. It does not contain any information about Starbucks' egg sourcing, nor is this information easily available anywhere on the company's website. Starbucks is certainly not alone in this regard.

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. 

TL;DR Summary

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.


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)

2. Health.

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).


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.

Paper and Logging: Addressing Deforestation at its Root

In part because technology has made transportation easier and cheaper, supply chains have been globalized: products that would have been made by one person or in one factory or in one city are now assembled in multiple countries. These products are sold in markets that might be hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from the person that produced them, meaning that we lack a direct link to the producer and may even lack any knowledge of where the producer is located, his working conditions and lifestyle, the materials that have been used and the methods of extraction.  This makes ethical consumption extremely difficult: there’s just too much to think about most of the time, and too little information available.

It isn’t that consumers don’t care about acting ethically. There is evidence that most people do want to buy socially and environmentally responsible products. For example, a 2014 poll surveyed 30 000 consumers in sixty countries, finding that 55% of global consumers are willing to pay more for socially responsible products.[1] But it isn’t always – or even often – easy to tell which choices that implies in practice. I’ve always found that frustrating.

I am starting Pullback as a small way to combat this problem. As a broader aspiration, I am working on building a tool that will help consumers to get information on easy changes they can make to better match their purchases with their specific values. I’m setting up this blog as a part of that effort. For now, I’ll be spotlighting a common consumption item every week and ‘pulling back’ the product messaging by researching available evidence and expertise and offering practical advice. My aim is to provide easy to understand information (backed by facts) that will help you to make everyday choices that accord with the ethical priorities that are most important to you.

As a teaser, this week I want to talk about paper.


The Issue: Deforestation is a big problem, driven by paper made from unsustainably managed forests.  

Advice: Experts generally agree that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme is the eco-label with the most stringent standards and most robust certification procedures. So, check for an FSC label. There are 3 different FSC labels you might come across:  FSC 100%, FSC MIX, and FSC Recycled. These are all responsible choices, but the FSC MIX and FSC Recycled labels are an even better choice because they include recycled materials. By buying FSC-certified, you can ensure that your paper has been extracted from forests that are managed in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Remember, though, that paper is still energy-intensive to produce.  Consider using less paper, where possible, and always recycle. Going paperless, where you can, is a good way to reduce your environmental footprint. Check out these sources for tips on going paperless at home and in the office.


Paper: it’s boring, but we use it all the time. Paper was invented in China around 200 BCE and since that time has become ubiquitous. And even though communications technology allows us to do a lot of things online for which we would have used paper, there is no sign that we are set to become a paperless society. Amid the digital revolution of the last twenty years, consumption of paper products has actually increased 126%.

Our increased use of paper has contributed to the dramatic deforestation rate. Forests, which currently cover a little under a third of all land on Earth, are integral to sustaining human lives. In addition to helping us breathe, forests store carbon and clean the air, support 80% of biodiversity on land, influence regional weather patterns to promote rainfall, reduce soil erosion/pollution and flooding, protect downstream ecosystems, refill aquafilters, and block wind, among many other benefits.

Deforestation has been and continues to be one of the most pressing environmental challenges. Over the past half century, about half of the world’s original forest cover has already been lost. Each year, we lose another estimated 18 million acres of forest – an area that is roughly the same size as Panama.

Sure, the blue team is willing to trade you a wood for a sheep, but how to you know that wood was ethically harvested? How do you know those two villages aren’t clear cutting!?

Sure, the blue team is willing to trade you a wood for a sheep, but how to you know that wood was ethically harvested? How do you know those two villages aren’t clear cutting!?

The paper making process generally includes the following steps: logging, de-barking and chipping, pulping, cleaning, paper making, and finishing. Check out this video for more detail on the paper making process. Today, I’m focusing on the first of these steps and the sustainable management of forests. However, as with any consumer product, there are other moral issues arising from each production step that are worth considering. For example, manufacturing pulp and paper takes a substantial amount of water and is energy intensive. Although pulp and paper workers are unionized in Canada, labour practices can be a concern in some cases.


Forest certification was first introduced in the late 1980s but continues to evolve. All forest certification programs consist of three elements:

  1. Forest certification: the evaluation of forest operations against predetermined criteria;
  2. Chain-of-custody: a system for addressing the origin of raw materials; and
  3. Eco-labels: labels that appear on products.

Today, three prominent eco-labels compete with one another in North American and European consumer markets: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) – which in Canada is instantiated as Canada’s National Sustainable Forest Management Standard (CSA).

It can be difficult to assess the comparative effectiveness of different certification schemes (academics are struggling with this), but there is a general consensus that the FSC eco-label is the best, because it has the most stringent standards, the most robust assessment mechanisms, and because companies have been banned from using the eco-label for failing to live up to FSC standards.[2]  


1. Forest Stewardship Council: FSC, which was spearheaded by World Wildlife Fund, was founded in 1993. Since that time, it has grown substantially: the total area of FSC certified forests, as of 2013, was 180 538 563 ha, with a rate of growth of 7%.[3] Europe and North America continue to dominate FSC sustainable forest management and chain of custody certificates – although Chile, India, Thailand, Turkey, Romania and Vietnam have all seen substantial increases in FSC certified forest area.[4] As of November 2014, FSC certification accounted for 39% of total certified areas in North America, 45% in Europe, 7% in South America and the Caribbean, 3% in Africa, 1% in Oceania and 5% in Asia. FSC is often seen as the most stringent forest certification program. It has in some instances banned companies from using the FSC trademark following complaints by advocacy NGOs,[5] although its complaint procedure has been the subject of criticism. Notably, however, FSC has been opposed by some environmental groups that view it as too business-friendly.[6]  

2. Sustainable Forestry Initiative: created in the U.S. in 1994 by the American Forest and Paper Association (the national trade association for the industry) as a response to the FSC, SFI originally emphasized organizational procedures and flexible, discretionary performance guidelines and requirements. As SFI competed with FSC for legitimacy, it developed a process by which companies could choose to be audited by an outside party to assess their compliance with the SFI standard.[7] This means that SFI program participants can now choose to verify SFI compliance on their own, using a second-party verifier (another firm or trade association), or through an independent third-party auditor. Participants that want to use the SFI eco-label must be third-party certified. As of 2003, about half of SFI participants were third-party certified.[8]  

3. Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC was created in 1999. It is a framework for the mutual recognition of different national or regional sustainable forest management schemes, which means it operates as an umbrella organization for different national standards. PEFC is a membership organization consisting of national organizations representing national forest certification schemes. Program participants use a common eco-label, but national accreditation bodies accredit certification bodies, which then certify forests.

In Canada, the PEFC-endorsed certification standard is Canada’s National Sustainable Forest Management Standard. It is referred to as ‘CSA’ (because it was established by the Canadian Standards Association) or the CAN/CSA Z809 standard. Over 60 million hectares of Canadian forest were third-party certified to the CSA as of 2011. To be certified, a third party independent auditor must verify that 17 critical elements are met.


[1] Nielson. (17 June 2014). Global Consumers are Willing to Put their Money where their Heart is when it Comes to Goods and Services from Companies Committed to Social Responsibility. Nielson Marketing Institute. Online at

[2] Auld, G. & Cashore, B. (2012). The Forest Stewardship Council. In Reed, D., Utting, P. & Mukherjee-Reed. (eds.) Business Regulation and Non-State Actors: Whose Standards? Whose Development? Routledge.

[3] FSC. (2013). FSC Market Info Pack

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rainforest Action Network. (13 August 2013). NGOs Welcome the Forest Stewardship Council Decision to Cut Ties with Companies Linked to Indonesia Pulp Giant APRIL.

[6] FSC Watch. (2008). Another NGO Quits FSC in Protest Against NORFOR Plantations.

[7]  Cashore, B., Auld, G. & Newsom, D. (2003). The United States’ Race to Certify Sustainable Forestry: Non-State Environmental Governance and the Competition for Policy-Making Authority. Business and Politics 5(3), 219 at p.224

[8] Anderson, C. & Hansen, E. (n.d.). Forest Certification: Understanding Ecolabel Usage Requirements. Oregon State University Wood Science & Engineering.