Friday, May 7, 2010

How to Decode Egg Cartons

Photo courtesy: eHow

As anyone who reads my blog regularly knows, I try to eat only environmentally-friendly foods; and, that includes my eggs. I have found an egg company in Canada that sells eggs from hens that have access to the outside, are NOT feed antibiotics or other poisons; and, are treated humanely. I refer to Rabbit River Farms.

True free-range chickens. Happy chickens = nutritious eggs. Photo courtesy: Rabbit River Farms

I know not everyone has access to eggs from Rabbit River; and, that's a shame in my mind. The eggs are absolutely delicious and so nutritious. So how does a dazed consumer navigate their way through the various labelling claims to find eggs from humanely-treated, truly free-run, organic chickens if they haven't found an outlet already? The claims all sound so wonderful and chicken-friendly; but, what do they really mean?

Here's a short guide to what the labelling claims mean in the USA. Guidelines in Canada and various European countries will be similar if not the same.

"Cage-Free", "Free-Range", "Free-Roaming"
The terms "Free Range" and "Free Roaming" mean that hens have "been allowed access to the outside", according to the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture). There are some third-party verification programs, too (see below). "Free Range" usually means the laying hens are raised in large flocks in big, open warehouses rather than in stacked cages. They can walk around, flap their wings and preen their feathers. Outdoor access is not clearly defined - it is probably very limited; and, on dirt or concrete rather than pasture. "Cage Free" does not mean outdoor access.

"Certified Humane"
Humane Farm Animal Care operates a certification program specifying that laying hens are uncaged with access to perches, nest boxes and dust-bathing areas. There are stocking-density maximums; but, outdoor access is not required. Beak trimming (but not debeaking) is allowed; starvation to induce molting is prohibited.

"Certified Organic"
Production methods must comply with the USDA National Organic Program including organic, vegetarian feed; no use of antibiotics; and, no cages. Debeaking and forced molting by starvation are allowed. Organic standards require producers to "maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behaviour of the animals". How much access to the outdoors this requires for chickens is still being debated. On large organic chicken farms, it may mean nothing more than a small door opening onto a concrete yard.

All eggs contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids which are thought to be beneficial to human health. Omega-3 levels in eggs can be raised by supplementing the birds' diet with fish oil, flax seed or alfalfa meal (or by simply allowing the birds to forage on lawn or pasture).

Photo courtesy: University of Lancaster

Want to determine the freshness of your eggs? Compare your carton end to the one in the picture to determine Julian Dates for your carton. Access a "Julian Date Converter" to calculate the day/month pack date from the Julian Date by clicking this USDA link.

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