Because product labeling can be so vague and meaningless, it has become more important than ever to develop a trusting relationship with your local farmer. You should be comfortable asking questions about how your food was raised, managed, fed and the farmer should be equally willing to talk to you and even show you.
While labels have become all but meaningless, the terms on them still provide a starting point for understanding how your food was raised or processed. Egg labels are particularly good at painting a prettier picture than reality.
Often if eggs in the store do not have a label declaring how they were raised (organic, free range, etc) then chances are they came from conventionally raised hens as 91% of eggs come from conventional hens. Conventionally raised hens spend their (short) lives in battery cages where they have less than a square foot of space. Less than a legal sheet of paper. These battery cages are inside of large, windowless barns with up to 100,000 other hens that never get to see sunlight.
The psychological damage of these living conditions leads to feather pecking and cannibalism. To prevent this, the industry has developed a technique called “debeaking”, where a hot knife is used to remove part of the beak. Not only does it cause pain at the time it’s performed, but it can also lead to chronic pain.
Only slightly better than conventional is cage free. And while the term illicites positive images, the reality is far different. Hens still live in large barns with 100,000 of their closest friends (literally, space per hen is still minimal at best). Debeaking is also practiced to prevent cannibalism.
Free range can be defined as a hen that has access to the outdoors, however, it does not require the hen to go outdoors. There is no government standard or third party auditing in place for the free range label.
Here at Willow Farm we use the term free range to describe how our hens live. However, our hens have a VERY different life. Each day we let them out (they spend the night in the chicken coop, safe from predators) and spend the day running around the barnyard, eating bugs, playing in the dirt and embracing all those natural chicken instincts.
This is why it is important to know your farmer and see how your food was raised. Because a label cannot tell the whole story.
Pastured hens live in moveable hens called chicken tractors or egg mobiles. Both of these house chickens are moved regularly across pastures. In a chicken tractor, chickens stay in all the time and are moved 1-2x a day. Egg mobiles are typically moved less often, but chickens are only penned up at night (predator protection) and are let out during the day with either complete freedom or enclosed with electrified poultry netting.
There are many benefits to this type of system:
I have never understood this labeling tactic. Chickens were designed to be omnivores. While the majority of a chicken’s diet is comprised of grains, when a chicken is allowed to be outdoors they will consume all manner of worms, bugs and insects. Whomever claims that chickens are vegetarians has never seen a flock fight over the unfortunate mouse that dared venture into the coop.
What the label does mean is that hens are fed feed that is free from animal byproducts. Some products are quite harmless and are actually a good source of protein and nutrients.
Not only are chickens consuming all this waste, but they are also consuming any drugs, antibiotics, and hormones that were given to the animals they now consume.
This is why being an informed consumer is so important- not only to understand the food quality you are feeding to your family, but also to understand the quality of life that animal had. Would you rather support egg production of hens in battery cages, or hens allowed to roam about and eat bugs to their heart's content?