Cracking the Egg Carton Jargon

18 Jan

I was recently grabbing some lunch with a friend when she mentioned that she was now trying to convince her boyfriend to no longer be vegetarian. Surprising. Since I’ve lived in Los Angeles, I’ve had countless friends tell me that they were trying to get their significant other to do just the opposite. And besides, as far as I knew, her boyfriend wasn’t vegetarian at all.

“Well, he just saw ‘Food Inc’ while I was away and now he’s turned vegetarian,” she explained. “He’s doing it because of the way the animals are treated.”

“Huh,” I responded.

While Food Inc is a great primer on food production in this country (and you can easily Netflix it- and should), it actually treads only very lightly on how poorly animals on concentrated animal feeding operations are treated. In fact, you can see much more gruesome stuff on the cover of a PETA brochure frankly.

This is my brain on eggs.

“I told him it doesn’t make any sense anyway because he still eats eggs,” my friend continued.

Aha. So here is an interesting point, to me anyway, because I used to make this same argument to my vegan friends. It’s not like it hurts the chickens to lay the eggs, I would reason. So what’s the big deal? I want my egg salad.

So here you go (and hopefully I won’t ruin eggs forever for you). Often times, egg laying chickens are stuffed into tiny cages with no room to move. In fact, a new law was just passed in California, called Proposition 2, forcing commercial chicken farmers to house their chickens in cages that would allow them room to do such crazy things as turn around, stand, lie down and fully extend their limbs. When chickens in these little cages that are stacked in tiers upon tiers become stressed–and they obviously do– they often rub up against the wiring of the cage to the point of rather severe injury. Given America’s obsession with white meat, it wouldn’t make good economic sense for a chicken farmer to allow his broilers to ruin their breast meat with abrasions, etc. So, chickens that are raised for consumption frequently get more space than an egg layer. Laying hens succumb to a bevy of different ailments (that you really don’t want to hear about) and after a short life span, sometimes end up as animal feed (which you also really don’t want to hear about). So there you have it, eating eggs is in fact just as detrimental to chicken-kind, if not more so, as eating the chicken breast sandwich, in terms of animal treatment on a factory farm.

For those of you, like myself, who still eat eggs (and chicken), but don’t like the idea of extreme chicken distress in the name of your omelet, don’t distress, you have some options. If possible, buy your eggs directly from a farmer at a farmers’ market. Talk to the farmer about how the chickens are raised. If you’re thinking, what’s to keep them from lying, the answer is simple: you could go check them out. Certified Santa Monica farmers’ markets, for instance, require that their farmers all be local. So, when a farmer tells you something, it’s with the knowledge that you could technically get in your car and drive to his farm and see what goes on there. If you buy your eggs from Albertsons, how would you even begin to track down the chickens that laid them?

That said, farmers’ market eggs (while they do taste better and peel much more easily when boiled than a conventional egg) are not cheap by any stretch of the imagination. For those of you, like me, who can’t always afford eggs from a farmer, it’s important that you know exactly what you are buying from your local store. Buying organic or free range eggs from the grocer still isn’t cheap, so you should know exactly what you are paying for and exactly what you are getting.

First of all, organic doesn’t mean happy and free chickens. It means that the chicken feed was produced without synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge or chemicals. The feed must be free of animal byproducts and not genetically modified. Plus, it means that your egg-layer wasn’t given hormones or broad- range antibiotics. All very good things for you and the chicken – but no guarantee that the chicken ever went outside, ever. Also, check for the organic certification on the packaging. If you don’t find it, then you are going on the company’s word that all of the above is true. If the eggs are certified, then the company paid someone else to check up on these things. Now, how to know if your chicken got to see the great outdoors? Words like non-confined, cage-free and free-range all invoke mental images of chickens outside but none of these labels assure that whatsoever. Cage-free means only that. Non-confined means that the animal was not confined in a feedlot but doesn’t mean that the animal ever went outside, it simply means that they had some kind of access to the outside. Free-range means that a door to the outside was left open for some period of time-again, no guarantee the birds ever went through said door. In fact, free-range is a term that the USDA has defined for chickens raised for food but not even this standard has been set for egg-laying hens.

Feeling ripped off yet? If you want more information regarding the terms you find on food packaging, and what they actually mean, visit www.sustainabletable.org. If you want to be sure that your chicken saw the light of day outside, look for the words pastured or pasture-raised on the egg carton. I won’t pretend that this is easy to find. But before you lose all hope, there is one more option. Check it out at Omlet USA Oh, and drop me a line if you find a way to pull this off in Los Angeles, Land of No Yard. (A balcony, perhaps?) I’d love to hear your stories.

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One Response to “Cracking the Egg Carton Jargon”

  1. Brent January 24, 2010 at 8:35 am #

    This raises a lot of good points about what those fancy marketing terms really mean when somebody is trying to buy anything organic or cage-free or non-GMO and so on.

    I don’t mind paying more for a premium (and hopefully better-tasting) product, but it burns a little to think that part of the extra money is going into a marketing catch phrase that doesn’t mean what I thought it meant.

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