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Home / Articles / Santa Fe Guides / Living Green /  Green Eggs and Sham?
living-green-eggs
How free is that range?
Elliott Teller

Green Eggs and Sham?

Cracking the code to egg carton labels

March 12, 2013, 12:00 am

 It’s tough to be a chicken these days. Americans consume roughly 79 billion table eggs each year. That’s a lot of eggs to lay, and most hens in the US are working overtime in battery cages, or 67-square-inch pens (about the size of a sheet of paper) that restrict nesting, foraging and walking. And then there’s the cannibalism. We know you’re a proudly eco-conscious Santa Fean, so where do you turn? Cage-free, free-range, Omega-3 enriched—the possibilities to go “green” are endless. Or are they? Those egg carton labels may not mean exactly what you think, but never fear. Your friends at SFR are here to help crack the code.   

Cage-free: While cage-free farms are by no means a “chicken utopia,” according to Josh Balk, director of corporate policy at the Humane Society of the United States, they do represent a “dramatic step forward from battery cages.” That’s because chickens can behave like chickens—they’re able to roam, nest and forage. But Balk admits it’s “not perfect; it’s a move in the right direction.” For instance, beak-cutting is permitted because, as in commercial cage operations, the cramped conditions can turn chickens into cannibals.  

Free-range: While the US Department of Agriculture defines “free-range” standards for meat poultry, no legal restrictions exist for egg-laying hens. For the most part, free-range hens roam around uncaged in barns or warehouses. However, like cage-free birds, they spend limited free time on the “range,” which is typically just an enclosed slab of cement outside. No rules govern how clean or spacious it must be, and beak-cutting is allowed.

Omega-3 enriched: Omega-3 is a fatty acid popular these days for its health benefits. To boost eggs’ omega-3 content, chickens are usually fed flaxseeds, which contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA)—a substance that’s found in soy and canola oil and is already abundant in the American diet.  While omega-3 eggs may be good for consumers, however, the label has nothing to do with animal welfare.

In sum, the egg-carton image of chickens happily roaming the sunny countryside is a far cry from the reality of modern American egg production. “Bucolic images of farms we once thought were typical American farms…just doesn’t represent how most hens are raised,” Balk says. Still, how a hen lives and what she eats have a major impact on an egg’s nutritional value. Balk points to the 2010 salmonella outbreak, when nearly half a billion eggs were recalled, as a cautionary tale about battery cages and factory farms. Need a better option? At the Santa Fe Farmer’s Market, you can speak directly with local farmers about what their chickens eat—and how green their eggs really are.



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