RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The board of directors of McDonald's is full of bad eggs. Or at least that's what the group plans to keep on the menu. As The New York Times reported last spring, the board advised against mandating that a measly 5 percent of the fast-food joint's eggs come from cage-free chickens. More than 90 percent of U.S. eggs come from caged hens. These birds have a space smaller than the size of a sheet of paper to move around, and live in filthy conditions. Aside from animal welfare concerns, that's bad for our health, too, Pennsylvania State University shows, because researchers recently found eggs raised on pasture are much more nutritious than eggs from their caged counterparts. Not to mention the higher risk of Salmonella contamination in eggs from hens kept in cages.
THE DETAILS: Penn State's study, published recently in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems found that pastured hens—ones kept outside on different pastures where they can exhibit natural behavior and forage for bugs and grasses—boasted higher vitamin and omega-3 fatty acid levels when compared to their commercially fed, battery-cage-kept counterparts. Eggs from pastured hens contained twice as much vitamin E and 2.5 times more total omega-3 fatty acids as the eggs from caged birds contained.
Congress recently introduced a bipartisan bill, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, that would require all eggs purchased by the federal government (for school lunch programs, prisons, the military, and so forth) come from cage-free operations. California and Michigan have already voted to phase out cages in laying hen operations, and there will be a similar measure on Ohio's upcoming voting ballot.
This all brings up an important issue: What exactly does cage-free mean? And how about all of the other labels we're likely to see on an egg carton?
WHAT IT MEANS: There are dozens of claims that manufacturers can make on egg cartons. Some of them are meaningful, but others are just ways to trick consumers into thinking they're buying eggs from happy chickens. (Remember, 90 percent of chicken eggs produced in this country come from the worst type of production system—battery cages.)
In an ideal situation, you would purchase your eggs from a local farmer in your area who raises chickens on pasture with plenty of space per bird, and uses moveable, open-air chicken houses, sometimes called chicken tractors, to protect the birds from predators. (You can look for this type of farmer on LocalHarvest.org.) Of course, you could also raise backyard chickens, if you have what it takes.
Eliminating cruel chicken cages is a matter of human health as well as animal welfare. The farther you take chickens away from their natural behaviors, the worse the quality of their eggs or meat. (See the Humane Society of the United States undercover video below to learn more about battery-cage egg-laying operations. WARNING: CONTAINS SCENES OF ANIMAL CRUELTY.)
"When you put four or five chickens in tiny cages, they can't engage in normal chicken behavior—pecking in the dirt, dusting. If they're in a cage, they can't do any of these things," explains chicken expert Gail Damerow, author of the classic Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey, 2010). (She hasn't purchased a store-bought egg since 1982.) "The pressure of the wire cages against their feet causes infections, their feathers rub off on the side of the cages. Basically, they're just totally frustrated. They've got nothing to do. They can't run around and eat flies and take dust baths. They just sit and lay eggs—what kind of life is that?" One result of all that stress and cruelty is that confined birds' eggs contain less nutrition than eggs from hens with room to roam.