Eggs seem to have one of the most complicated labels of all the products in the supermarket, making it increasingly difficult to identify just which eggs are the best for you and for the chickens who laid them.
It seems like the possibility is endless when it comes to egg labels. From organic, free-range and pastured to barn laid and caged, these labels may seem confusing but actually mean very different things in the world of eggs and egg-laying hens.
So, how can you tell the difference?
Space to roam
We’d all love for our eggs to come from chickens that are free to roam and enjoy a lifestyle that’s as natural as possible, but that isn’t always the case.
Caged eggs come from hens that are confined to a small cage within an indoor setting such as a barn or shed. They spend all of their day indoors and are fed and watered in their cage. Caged hens have no room to roam and never go outdoors, meaning that they have the lowest quality of life out of all of the egg-laying hens (however, the ACCC ensures they are raised in a humane manner). Barn laid eggs come from hens who also spend all of their day indoors, but are not caged and therefore have more room to roam within the confines of their barn or shed.
You may envisage ‘free-range‘ chickens roaming outdoors in the grass and pecking away at the ground, however the label ‘free-range’ simply means that the chickens need to spend some of their daylight hours outdoors. To add to this, free-range chickens don’t necessary have grass to roam upon – this is where the ‘pastured’ label comes in. Pastured eggs come from hens that spend their whole day roaming on pasture or grasslands. Mobile sheds provide shade and shelter, and the chickens are rotated throughout different pastures every few days to allow the land to regenerate. Pastured eggs may be the best non-organic option however the land they roam upon may still be subjected to synthetic chemicals and their diet may not be as strictly regulated.
Certified organic eggs come from chickens who are free to roam outdoors on certified organic pastureland (for a minimum of 8 hours per day) that is free from synthetic chemicals and GMO crops, meaning that the eggs that you buy are also free from them too. With set stocking systems, no more than 1,500 birds are permitted per hectare for certified organic chickens, whereas non-organic free range can be up to 10,000 per hectare. For farms that practice stock or forage rotations, the limit is 2,500 birds per hectare for certified organic hens. Because if the chickens have the best organic diet then you can rest assured that the eggs will be the best organic eggs you can buy! Certified organic egg producers have to meet strict criteria and go through rigorous auditing to obtain certified organic accreditation, standards which are not the same for the other egg labels.
Learn more about free range eggs here.
Certified organic eggs are the only eggs that come from chickens with a highly regulated diet. These hens are free to roam and peck on certified organic pastureland and are provided with certified organic feed – both of which are free from synthetic chemicals, growth promotants and antiobiotics, are non-GMO and provide a varied diet that is similar to their natural equivalent.
Pastured eggs come from chickens who also have access to open pastureland, but their diet is not regulated like the certified organic hens. Hens who lay eggs from pastured, free-range, caged and barn-laid conditions may have had a diet containing GMO crops (like corn), may have been fed hormones to encourage growth and production, and may have been subjected to an array of synthetic chemicals (such as fertiliser, pesticides etc.) – all of which is not permitted in certified organic egg production.
Why is this an issue? Well, there are numerous studies surrounding the flow of fertilisers and pesticides throughout the food chain – meaning that whatever the chicken eats, you will eat too. Studies have also shown that eggs from chickens who have access to pasture/grassland are higher in omega 3 fats, vitamin A and vitamin E than their caged equivalents.
The welfare of the chickens doesn’t just come down to what they are fed and how often they see sunlight. Although hens in Australia are raised to a humane national standard, this is simply a minimum guideline and it is up to the producer to go over and above this minimum standard.
For example, beak trimming is a practice often used to protect the birds from injuring themselves, but can ultimately impair their natural instincts. With trimmed beaks, chickens cannot peck and injure each other, however they also cannot forage as they normally would outdoors. The process can be painful and traumatic for the hens and could otherwise be unnecessary if correct management practices were in place to prevent behavioural issues.
Hens that lay certified organic eggs are raised to some of the highest animal welfare standards and treated in the most humane way possible. This includes the restriction of practices such as beak trimming and prohibits the use of hormones to increase the size of the hens unnaturally. By allowing the birds more free space to roam, feeding them a more natural diet and giving them the ability to behave much like they would in their natural habitats, certified organic birds experience less stress and therefor experience less overall health and behavioural issues.
Make the right choice
Certified organic eggs are the most nutritious, ethically produced eggs available. Produced without the use of synthetic chemicals, with no added hormones, non-GMO, and hens raised on an organic diet and lifestyle, the next time you choose your eggs, make sure you’re making the right choice. Choose certified organic. Always look for the ‘Bud’.