Not a day goes by without some major food-supply conglomerate or fast-food chain announcing the date, sometimes a few years in the distance, when all the chickens and/or eggs it sells to the public will be free range or antibiotic-free or organic or whatever. But today’s announcement that the Kraft Heinz Company “will transition to using 100 percent cage-free eggs in all North American operations by 2025,” according to a release, sets a new definition of planning ahead.
It’s surely difficult to change a corporate culture and alter the supply chain for a large company, or so the recent spate of announcements would have us believe. Wendy’s breakfast sandwiches won’t be made with certified cage-free eggs until 2020, so it’s only five years ahead of Kraft Heinz, the newly merged makers of ketchup, Velveeta and Lunchables. Subway’s massive sandwich chain is also aiming at 2025 to go cage-free in North America, though it’s worth noting that its stores in Australia (cage-free) and Europe (free range) are already ahead of the better-sourcing curve.
The announcement notes, “Kraft Heinz sources eggs in North America primarily for use within its Sauces portfolio including for brands like Miracle Whip, Heinz Mayo and Kraft Salad Dressings. The company defines cage-free eggs as those laid by hens allowed to walk, nest and engage in other behaviors in an open area.” Which sounds reasonable enough, although the timing raises the question of whether the company is merely jumping on the good PR bandwagon of going cage-free, given that the subtext is that for the next nine years, eggs might be of dubious origin. We’ve all seen photos and videos of the cramped conditions in commercial coops. And despite all the press about cage-free eggs, it can still be baffling to buy a carton of eggs at the supermarket. So it’s worth reposting our guide to the different egg designations for you, the reader, and maybe the Kraft Heinz employee who wants to get up to speed over the next nine years:
Self-explanatory. Chickens are housed indoors in cages with less than a square foot per bird and no access to the outdoors, ever. Their diet consists solely of feed. NPR reported in 2013 that an overwhelming 90 percent of eggs that we consume were farmed from caged hens.
The cages are absent, but the chickens are still indoors, with about 1.2 square feet per bird. No outdoor access. Their only food is feed. The packages of Sunshine Farms, a purveyor in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut region, make vague reference to “eggs [that] are produced by hens in a carefully managed, cage-free setting with ample space to move freely and engage in natural behaviors.”
These chickens are given a little more room (1.2 to 1.75 square feet per bird) than cage-free birds. According to Dan Brooks, creative director for Vital Farms, “organic” refers to how the land and feed are treated rather than focusing on whether the chickens are treated humanely. These hens may have some access to outdoor areas.
Chickens are given access to 108 square feet of the grassy outdoors per bird. They spend most of their time outside and forage for insects, flowers and grass. The USDA has yet to recognize the term as an official method of farming chickens. According to Brooks, pasture-raised eggs may be higher in protein and vitamins because, as he puts it, “what you get out is what you put in.” Betsy and Bryan Babcock of Handsome Brook Farm also point out that the yolks of pasture-raised eggs offer a more vibrant orange tint than the factory-made yellow yolks.
As far as price goes, pasture-raised eggs are vastly more expensive, reaching the $6-7 per dozen price range. Both the Babcocks and Brooks say that there are built-in costs that come with raising laying hens on the pasture — more land comes at a higher price. “It’s also a great deal more labor-intensive as the farmer needs to be more hands-on with the flock management than he would be for any sort of confined system,” Brooks says. “For those, the bulk of the work is handled by automated systems, whereas our farmers are out in the field every day checking their flocks.”
Chickens, like humans, can get sick from time to time. To combat a small illness, medicine, usually in the form of antibiotics, is sometimes the call to action. USDA organic standards require all livestock and their products to be free of antibiotics. However, it’s not unheard of if a hen has fallen sick and needs to recover. “We don’t market our lack of use of antibiotics, as it’s not much of a differentiator, and we’d much rather talk about welfare, space outside, et cetera,” Brooks says. “It’s a bit like calling your coffee ‘mountain grown,’ just like everyone else’s.”
All USDA-regulated chickens are not given hormones. In other words, all eggs and chickens in the U.S. are hormone-free.
Defined by the third party Humane Farm Animal Care. As far as the treatment of laying hens goes, both free-range and pasture-raised chickens can be emblazoned with the Certified Humane label. In order for free-range eggs to be Certified Humane, the chickens must be allowed daily access to the outdoors (two square feet per bird), weather permitting. As for pasture-raised eggs, these chickens must have outdoor access (2.5 acres per 1,000 birds) year round. Other standards can be found here. Brooks says Vital Farms had a hand in creating this definition.
Animal Welfare Approved
Another third-party group that prohibits closed confinement of laying hens. AWA requires at least four square feet per bird of outdoor foraging space and 1.8 square feet of indoor space.
This refers to the feed given to the hens and not the chickens themselves. It ensures that it doesn’t contain any genetically modified organisms.
This standard is set by the USDA. In order for eggs to be organic, the chickens are required to be living free range “with minimum indoor and outdoor space, i.e., it may be a covered porch,” Brooks says. The USDA’s official site does not specifically outline what living conditions for organic chickens are.
According to Betsy Babcock, chickens are natural omnivores and will eat plants and insects. “The chicken companies that market themselves as being ‘vegetarian-fed’ are clearly not letting their hens outdoors or eating an omnivore diet that is best for chicken health,” she says.
Brooks says the term is misleading. “We do say that we provide [the hens] a vegetarian feed, which is to distinguish from any feed that may contain animal by-products, but they enjoy a mixed diet out on the pastures,” Brooks says. “We’ve had consumers tell us that they don’t appreciate it when companies make a big deal about ‘vegetarian-fed,’ as they know that that is not necessarily a good thing.”
The healthy fatty acid that is most often found in fish and nuts can also be sourced from eggs, depending on the chickens’ diet. Organic Valley advertises that its omega-3 eggs are a source of the fatty acid because its chickens are fed a diet high in flaxseed, another source of omega-3. A 2010 study performed by Penn State University found that pasture-raised eggs were higher in omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E than non-pasture-raised eggs due to the variety in their diet, which consisted of grasses and insects that were foraged. These eggs were compared to those of chickens who were fed commercial hen mash.