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by Stephanie Monmoine
In summary, pasture-raised, Organic, and Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved eggs can be considered the golden standard (or golden egg in this case). Despite general outrage over the living conditions in battery cage systems, most consumers still refuse to pay extra for cage-free eggs. It costs more to raise hens in healthier conditions, so demand needs to keep up with supply to make the investments in new equipment worth it. Unfortunately, cage-free egg supply was outstripping demand in 2018, so the two largest egg companies halted construction for their cage-free facilities. If you want to make a difference with your egg purchase, opt for cage-free at the very least to support farmers making the shift towards more ethical practices. If you’re willing to consider egg alternatives, vegan options are easily the most ethical and environmentally conscious option. From a climate perspective, eggs are still better than beef, pork, and chicken, but much worse than other sources of plant-based proteins. The good news is that there are plenty of climate-friendly alternatives to choose from, and many of them can even be cooked just like real eggs. Fortunately, eating eggs from another species is by no means an essential part of our diet, but marketing cooperatives like United Egg Producers have spent lots of time and money sponsoring legislation and marketing campaigns to promote the benefits of eggs without mentioning any of the drawbacks.
Laying Out the Certifications
Look for these third-party animal welfare certifications:
- The Certified Humane seal
- Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW
The following terms only mean something if they have been certified because they are not regulated by the USDA:
- Look for Certified Humane status. This term is not regulated by the USDA, but can be reliably demonstrated by being Certified Humane.
- TO be Certified Humane, there must be 108-square-feet per bird, which is the same standard adopted by Animal Welfare Approved.
- Look for Certified Humane status or the term doesn’t actually imply any regulated space requirements.
- For Certified Humane status, “there must be 1.5 square feet per hen, litter for dust bathing, perches for the birds, and ammonia levels at a maximum of 10ppm, which means the scent is imperceptible.”
- Anyone can put this term on a label, but Certified Humane provides a specific standard. If eggs are Certified Humane free-range, the hens must have a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per bird.
The following terms have to do with what the hens were fed, NOT how they were treated:
These terms are not regulated and there are no standard rules for using them on labels, so they never mean anything.
- Farm Fresh
- Vegan alternatives to eggs (there are plenty that cater to specific needs like baking or scrambling).
- These may have their own environmental trade-offs, but any negative effects are unlikely to outweigh the harmful environmental, social, and animal welfare impacts of factory-farmed eggs. Vegan ingredients are also the only way to guarantee your food is cruelty-free.
Eggs from your local farmer’s market.
- Bring your own carton and get to know your farmers and their practices
- Support local
- Reduced transportation and manufacturing emissions
- Hybrid carton- carbon neutral, recyclable, and compostable lid and a compostable paper base made from 100% recycled pulp (you can compost or recycle the whole thing)
- Small farms
- Pasture-raised (choose between GMO-free or Organic)
- Certified B Corps
- Small farms
- Organic pasture-raised
- compostable/recyclable carton
- No GMOs, antibiotics, pesticides, or cages
- Certified B Corps
The Deviled Eggs are in the Details
When it comes to eggs, it may seem like choosing the most sustainable option is just about deciding between eggs contained in plastic, paper, or styrofoam, but like most things in life (and sustainability)– it’s just not that simple. Do you ever get confused in the egg aisle trying to decide whether labels like “cage-free” and “pasture-raised” are worth the extra few dollars? Or perhaps just trying to understand what they even mean? You’re not alone.
Marketers are well-aware of this reality, so they use unregulated and vague terms to increase the appeal of certain brands and charge you more without actually changing their farming practices. This makes it hard for intentful consumers like yourself to tell which eggs were raised in the most ethically and environmentally conscious conditions. Don’t worry though– we got you!
The egg industry accounts for 119,080 jobs and over $6.6 billion in wages to families throughout the country. That’s a total economic impact of $34.7 billion, but farming eggs at that scale comes at a high cost to both humans and animals. There is one thing we know for sure– caged eggs are the worst. Beyond that, it gets a bit messy. Unfortunately, most of the eggs found in processed foods like your last birthday cake or the occasional Egg McMuffin are coming from hens in cramped cages raised in unethical conditions, regardless of the idyllic pastures depicted on many of the premium egg cartons in the grocery store.
The first major concern for most people is the ethical treatment and overall health of the hens laying our eggs. Unfortunately, things are rather bleak on that end. United Egg Producers estimates that 85% of the eggs commercially produced in the U.S. and 90% of the eggs produced globally come from caged hens.
While there are a variety of caged systems, most of the hens laying the eggs we eat are kept in battery cages so small they can’t even fully stretch their wings. These have been banned in the European Union since 2012, so you could say we’re a bit behind the curve. Picture a typical 8.5x11 sheet of paper and then remove 28% of it… That’s where they live out their entire lives, enduring constant stress and anxiety–yes, other animals experience anxiety too–from being unable to perform essential behaviors like scratching, nesting, and perching.
While cage-free eggs are definitely a better option than caged, don’t ever mistake the term to mean cruelty-free. Both housing systems traditionally employ the following practices:
- buying hens from hatcheries that kill male chicks upon hatching
- burning or cutting off beaks with no pain prevention
- some even withhold food and water to induce “molting” which helps the birds produce more eggs than they should (This practice is outlawed in many countries, but 75-80% of hens in the U.S. undergo forced molting outside of their natural cycle as farms reduce the lighting and switch the birds to high fiber, low energy feed)
The reality is that hens living a happy life just couldn’t produce as many eggs as we need to keep up with demand. Wild chickens naturally lay just 10-15 eggs per year and only during breeding season. Hens on egg farms, however, are specifically selected and physiologically manipulated to produce unnaturally high quantities of eggs, and this takes a heavy toll on their bodies. Due to these strenuous conditions, their egg production declines, and they’re sent to slaughter before they reach even half of the normal life expectancy of wild chickens.
So, what came first? The chicken or the egg? Sadly, one could argue that when it comes to our concerns, it doesn’t really matter because the ones we buy at the store likely all came from hatcheries with the same horrendous conditions.
Each year, 200 million male chicks are either ground up alive to become fertilizer or left in dumpsters to suffocate, and that’s just in the U.S. Sadly, the female chicks that survive just end up suffering through an unnaturally short life before being transported to slaughterhouses to meet the same fate. In accordance with U.S. laws, hens can be transported for up to 36 hours without access to food or water, so many die before even arriving at the slaughterhouse.
Transporting egg-laying hens to be killed alongside those raised for meat is no longer considered profitable, so the industry is shifting to killing the hens in the same location where they are raised. For on-site killing methods, you get to choose from the following less-than-ideal options: gassing the hens with CO2, breaking their necks, or grinding them alive. Afterward, they are likely to be composted (better than the landfill at least, right?), and some hens even survive until this phase, enduring unimaginable pain and terror until the very end.
Paper or Plastic Packaging?
We all know styrofoam is enemy #1, but is there any way plastic could truly be better for the environment than paperboard when it comes to packaging eggs?
Pete and Gerry sure seem to think so, but how can that be? It’s all in the details–or in this case– just one letter.
Nearly a decade ago, the company hired Quantis to compare each egg carton type across a range of environmental factors. While it’s no surprise that PET plastic performed the worst across the board, RPET (recycled PET) cartons were found to be “vastly superior” to both molded pulp (recycled paper) and polystyrene (styrofoam) at almost every stage of life. It should be noted that this study has received criticism for being based on old data and misused by other brands in the industry.
For years, the results of the study have been cited in marketing by other companies to defend their plastic packaging– even some like Sauder’s Eggs who don’t even use ANY recycled plastic in their cartons. Sauder’s Eggs discusses the environmental benefits of recycled packaging in-depth on its website–even going so far as to point out that plastic can be recycled up to 7 times, despite their plastic cartons being made with virgin (unrecycled) plastic.
Brands leverage the confusion between something being recycled and being recyclable to mislead consumers into thinking their products don’t contribute to the global issue of plastic pollution. Be sure to keep an eye out for this distinction and opt for 100% recycled packaging if you’re getting your eggs packaged in plastic.
Unfortunately, the true environmental impact of recycled plastic largely depends on the current market for these plastics and whether or not you can recycle the egg carton in your curbside bin. That’s why the safest bet is avoiding single-use packaging altogether by buying locally from your farmer’s markets or other places where you can bring your own reused carton each time.
A “laying hen” eats roughly 78 lbs of feed per year, during which time she produces an average of 276 eggs a year. Americans are eating more eggs than ever before. With the average person eating 279 eggs, imagine that at least one laying hen must be fed, watered, and housed for each American. The environmental impact of that operation is much greater than the impact of something we can touch, see, and (hopefully) recycle or compost like the egg carton. Due to the minimal variations in infrastructure, there is no major difference between the environmental impact of cage-free barns compared to battery cages, but the largest environmental impact of chickens actually lies in feeding them. According to calculations of the United Nations Environment Programme, the calories lost by feeding grains to animals, instead of using them directly as human food, could theoretically feed an extra 3.5 billion people. That grain also requires water, land, and energy to produce, and there are carbon emissions associated with each step of processing it.
Another major concern is the health of the factory farm workers and nearby residents. A large percentage of these individuals are people of color, and undocumented migrant workers are often hired because their status means they are unlikely to complain about low wages and hazardous working conditions. These workers consistently inhale dangerous levels of particulate matter (such as fecal matter, feed, fungi and bacterial endotoxins), and they are exposed to ammonia and hydrogen sulfide gases, all of which can cause chronic respiratory disorders, cardiovascular complications, and even premature death. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) permits ammonia levels to reach 50 parts per million (ppm) in factory farms even though it has been shown to cause symptoms like respiratory problems and eye irritation with as little as 6 ppm.
Chickens are omnivores, so they are supposed to eat a wide variety of plants and insects for a healthy diet. Up to 20% of the food consumed by pasture-raised hens comes from the outdoors, whereas caged hens mostly eat industrially-produced corn and soybeans. This grain diet is supplemented with animal by-product waste from the meat and poultry industries (think bones, flesh, feathers, and beaks). Mad cow disease rendered this practice illegal for cows, but no laws currently address this animal waste being fed to hens. As a result of concerned consumers, however, many brands now tout the label “100% vegetarian-fed” to ensure the hens weren’t fed animal byproducts. The diversity of nutrients that pasture-raised hens have access to usually leads to higher levels of vitamins, minerals, and fatty acids, without the need for any of the feed additives. Some farmers feed flax seeds and other supplements to hens to increase the quantity of omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients. If the label says “Raised without antibiotics,” the farmers had to remove any animals treated with antibiotics from production.
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