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I've been having a great time checking out Nashville's high end dining on the cheap thanks to Groupon. Have you tried it yet? Its awesome. I don't know why I ever hesitated.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

"Cage-Free" Eggs are the New "It" Accessory

Hotter than a Marc by Marc Jacobs handbag, cage-free eggs are all the rage. The living conditions of America's favorite poultry was only a simmering concern in 2003 when Adbusters did a scathing expose on the living conditions of commercially raised chickens in the U.S. But now concern for the living standards of our poultry has hit the mainstream media, as evidenced by a recent New York Times article. More chickens than ever are living la vida "cage-free" yet commercial demand for "cage-free" eggs still outpaces supply. But of course, buying our way out of consumer guilt and into healthier, more socially conscious, and (potentially) more tasty eggs is never so clear as it seems.

Who's leading the fashion charge on these trendy little egg-cessories (I had to get my pun in. See the note below)? The bakeries and kitchens at Whole Foods have used only cage-free eggs since 2005. Ben & Jerry's, well known for their social consciousness, made a media splash last year by announcing it would only use "certified humane" eggs in its ice creams. Now Wolfgang Puck has been convinced to do the same with his food empire. For heaven's sake, even Burger King is thinking of getting a foot onto the bandwagon, with a phase plan to incorporate more cage-free eggs in its mass-produced food.

All this demand has outpaced supply of cage-free eggs. The major chains, having made their claims about moving to cage-free, now find themselves scrambling like a couple of girls at a Filene's Basement sale. The number of commercial chickens in the U.S. living "cage free" has more than doubled in the last few years, but is still only a meager five percent of all commercial chickens nationwide.

Me: When you hear the words "cage-free" what do you think about?
Rachel: Running about wild.
Me: Uh-huh.


So we know consumers and food industry mavens want "cage-free" eggs, but what is the hype all about? It turns out the terminology for labeling chicken eggs reads something like the tax code. Eggs may be: "Animal Care Certified," "Free Range," "Organic," "Hormone Free," and of course, "Cage-Free." A consumer might think eggs labeled "Animal Care Certified" conveyed a sense of social consciousness. However, 80% of the eggs sold in the U.S. are labeled "Animal Care Certified," which is a designation controlled by United Egg Producers. The trick there is that the U.E.P. are both the people making the animal care rules and those merrily claiming to be abiding by those rules. Small wonder, eh? However, this designation still permits producers to trim chicken beaks to prevent hen fights, underfeed hens to extend their productive years, and house eight hens in a mere 67 square inches.

Me: Yeah, I thought so too. But it turns out cage-free just means no small cages.
Rachel: Yeah, I suppose that makes sense. Like when I worked on the farm in college, I thought the conditions in the pig farm were bad. But then I saw the chickens. Conditions on the pig farm were spa-like compared to the chickens. I've never seen anything else like it.
Me: Uh-huh. Hey, can I use that quote about pigs being spa-like?


When eggs are labeled "free range" it means the chickens that produced them have access to the outdoors. But there is a deep gray area between "caged" and "free-range." This gray area is increasingly dominated by the trendy "cage-free" designation. But be careful not to equate "cage-free" with the image of a happy chicken merrily scratching away in the background of American Pastoral. Quite to contrary. The chickens may not be packed into very small cages, rather "cage-free" chickens may find themselves tightly packed in to the floors of industrial sheds. According to the New York Times, "most cage-free chickens never peck in a barnyard during their lives, which last from 12 to 18 months. The term “cage free” is lightly regulated." Producers can take advantage of vague regulations to classify their birds "cage-free" and cash in on the upswing in consumer social consciousness.


Resources:

Warning: you will find a fair number of bad puns in the titles for these articles, including my favorite, the Humane Society's "hard boiled truth." Further proof that there is something about an egg that lends itself to bad punnery.

The New York Times
The Christian Science Monitor
American Humane Association
Humane Farm Animal Care (responsible for the "certified humane" label)
Humane Society of the U.S. (Aggressively lobbying for more cage-free eggs. Convinced Wolfgang)

3 comments:

Kim said...

I would challenge your readers to ask around their circle of contacts to find local free-range chicken eggs.

Everywhere that I have lived whether it be an urban or rural area, I have always been able to find someone who knows someone (etc.) who has a hobby farm and eggs available.

Fresh, organic and chickens who are living the resort life.

(Likely won't work for Burger King but it works for me.)

Erin said...

That is a great idea kim. If you are looking for a place to start, you might be able to make some contacts at one of the last few farmer's markets of the year. Even if they don't sell eggs, they may know someone.

I am spoiled because where I grew up, small scale farmers of all stripes would put hand painted signs by the road where you could purchase their products on the honor system: deposit money into box, take cherry tomatoes. The same for eggs and honey.

Here in Ghana the chickens may not live in a resort, but they wander the streets as free as the humans. And I have always sworn you could taste the difference a free life makes in the quality of the meat.

clumsy said...

Hi Erin, Great post!
Yes, contacting you egg supplies (or buying them from a farm you know and love) is the best way to find out what type of "cage-free" life the chickens are living. However, even in the worst "cage-free" conditions, the chickens lives are better than the lives of laying hens in non-cage-free manufacturing plants. Even if their live is only marginally better, that's reason enough to never buy non-cage-free. And, like you've learned in Ghana, if you are going for taste--buy eggs from chickens on a nice farm where they can roam!

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