People are always curious how I know so much about eggs. Fact is, the Rischs were famous for eggs long before we were famous for shotgun weddings and online coupon fraud. My great-great-grandfather acquired his first hen at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, where it was touted as “the poor man’s duck.” By 1900 the flock had grown to over 200 layers, three roosters, and this one dude named Mike. Sadly, great-great-grandpa was forced to retire in 1934 after the sight of Katherine Hepburn’s slacks rendered him unable to perform manual labor. The flock then passed to my great-grandpa, who’d glare with contempt at his young son, Butch, every time the chickens laid an egg too close to supper time. Little Butch grew up to do other contemptible things, like marry a Swede. He’s also my grandfather.
Moved by his sense of patriotic duty and a desire to evade creditors, Grandpa Butch joined the Navy in 1942. After taking an aptitude test, he was stationed aboard the USS Alabama as an anchor, but was later promoted to rudder. Upon returning stateside, Grandpa was disheartened by a popular new music fad known as “be-bop jazz,” and took over the family egg farm so he’d have something to throw at hipsters. Grandpa still runs the farm to this day, only he’s much wrinklier now.
I spent my boyhood summers working on the farm as a candler. My job was to hold each egg up to a strong light bulb and determine if it had Communist leanings. I’m ashamed of it now, but I’d sometimes blacklist innocent eggs just to meet quota. Eventually my grandfather replaced me with an automatic candling machine. I took this just fine, but my grandmother was racked with guilt and spent many sleepless nights thinking of ways to sabotage Grandpa’s oatmeal.
Our chickens have always free-ranged. My grandparents tried cages once in the ‘70s, but back then, married couples were into all kinds of crazy stuff. We also feed the flock certified rhino-free feed, a fact my grandfather takes great pride in.
Because of my experience in the industry, I’m often asked to explain the terms used on egg carton labels. For instance, what exactly does “cage-free” mean? Are certified humane eggs suitable for soufflés? What about chocolate soufflés? What’s the difference between “organic,” “natural,” and “deviled” eggs? The following list aims to shed light on these issues and more.
Chickens that aren’t caged lay these eggs. However, this doesn’t guarantee the chickens are raised outdoors, or even that they have access to the outdoors. Sort of like my uncle Ray after his last DWI—he’s not in jail, but he can’t leave his house.
Seriously though, cage-free chickens aren’t always better off than those raised in cages. A standard battery cage is one cubic foot, meaning its occupant has at least one square foot of floor space. Many cage-free systems, however, have stocking densities of less than one square foot per bird, resulting in poor sanitation and cannibalism. In fact, hens raised in cage systems are less likely to be victims of pecking and cannibalism for the very fact that cages separate them.
To be clear, I’m certainly not advocating for battery cages, nor am I saying that all cage-free systems are bad. My point is only that the term “cage-free” is meaningless with respect to animal welfare. Which brings us to our next label...
Certified Humane Raised and Handled
This label is found on Phil’s eggs, and is your best bet for happy chickens. Humane Raised and Handled certification is provided by HFAC (Humane Farm Animal Care), a national non-profit dedicated to the health and welfare of farm animals “from birth through slaughter.” What happens after slaughter is none of their business; so feel free to take that side of beef to the homecoming dance, for all they care.
But in all seriousness, HFAC mandates high welfare standards for producers who carry the Certified Humane label, enforcing separate regulations for free-range and indoor systems. Free-range systems must offer reasonable access to well-drained pasture covered by living vegetation, and include overhead foliage for protection from predators. Indoor systems have analogous guidelines limiting stocking density to ensure birds are not overcrowded. Regardless of management system, cages of any kind, even so called “enriched” cages, are not allowed.
Additionally, Certified Humane producers meet requirements ensuring their hens can engage in natural behaviors like scratching and dust-bathing. There are also rules governing air quality, pest management, food and water, and lighting. Farms are re-certified annually, a process involving on-site HFAC inspections.
There’s a lot about this great program I can’t go into here, especially since I’ve wasted so much space on stupid jokes. Please visit www.certifiedhumane.org for more information.
One more note before moving on, organic certification is not a requirement of the Certified Humane program. In fact, Phil’s, Willy Street Co-op’s only certified humane eggs, are also our only conventional eggs. Organic certification itself carries a veneer of welfare standards, but mainly ensures hens are raised on organic feed.
Hens raised on certified organic feed lay organic eggs. Synthetic pesticides are prohibited for the control of internal and external parasites, and chickens cannot have contact with synthetic chemicals.
Just like “cage free,” organic certification doesn’t guarantee humane treatment. USDA organic standards mandate outdoor access for chickens, but the rule is so loosely defined that even small, screened-in, concrete porches qualify. What’s more, “access” can mean a couple small holes cut in the side of a barn housing thousands of birds. Chickens lucky enough to find one of these openings are often too frightened to leave the relative security of the barn. Only the most unscrupulous farmers employ these tactics, but it does happen, particularly with large-scale organic egg production.
To be fair, it’s difficult for farmers to regulate what their chickens come in to contact with on open pasture. For instance, if a chicken eats a grasshopper that was just munching on the neighbor’s conventionally grown crops, it’s technically in violation of organic standards. Chickens raised outdoors are also more susceptible to parasites like worms and avian lice, a problem intensified for organic flocks that can’t be treated with synthetic pesticides. Adding to these challenges, treated lumber is prohibited under organic standards; meaning fencing constructed with pressure-treated posts cannot contain a flock. Being a country boy, I’ve never seen a farm fence built with untreated wood, but I have seen them built with swearwords and fists raised angrily toward the heavens (Grandma can be quite the hothead before her 9:00am brandy).
There are many producers who are able to balance organic regulations with animal welfare. For a list of these brands, check out the Cornucopia Institute’s organic egg scorecard at www.cornucopia.org/organic-egg-scorecard/. Notice that New Century, Willy Street Co-op’s best-selling brand of eggs, ranks high on the scorecard with 4 out of 5 eggs.
This one can also be misleading, as “pasture-raised” doesn’t mean hens have access to open pasture. Instead, pasture-raised chickens live in mobile pens that are moved daily to patches of fresh grass. Just like “cage-free,” stocking density is key here; cram too many birds in a pen and you have the same issues of cannibalism and poor sanitation.
Willy Street Co-op doesn’t carry these, but if you ever come across some, take caution: fertile eggs contain live chickens.