This is the part three of a series about the information printed on egg cartons. I’ve found you can learn from all that carton information once you figure out what it's actually saying. And sometimes you can learn a whole lot by what it doesn’t say. Today I’m going to take a look at a carton of Wild Harvest Cage Free Large Brown Eggs. Wild Harvest is a brand created by SuperValu in 2008 to address “consumers' growing preference for organic and natural products.” SuperValu can trace its roots back to an 1870’s Minneapolis dry goods wholesaler with the unlikely name of B.S. Bull and Company. From those humble beginnings, it has grown to be the fifth largest food retailer in the US.
The art on this Wild Harvest carton shows two pretty brown eggs on a somewhat stylized background of green grass. While egg cartons often show countryside scenes, as I mentioned in part two of this seriesthe hens that lay the eggs in those cartons often have never seen the countryside but have spent their entire lives in battery cages. So again, we have a pastoral image – literally eggs on grass. This carton proclaims that the eggs are “cage free” so surely the hens that laid these eggs spent some quality time pecking and scratching in the grass, right? Probably not, sadly, probably not. What does cage free mean then, for goodness sake? Read on.
As you can see from this informative chart put together by the Humane Society of the United States, cage free does not mean that the hens are allowed to go outdoors. Any question regarding the living situation of the hens that laid these eggs is answered by the text on the inside of the carton: [These hens are] “raised in barns.” What cage free does mean is that the hens aren’t confined to cruel battery cages where they can’t spread their wings, turn around, or engage in any sort normal social behavior. While the living conditions for cage free hens are about a million times better than the conditions battery cages provide, they aren’t perfect, and the hens are stuck indoors.
This strange code on the back of the carton provides some additional insight into the welfare of the hens that made these eggs. In 2008 California voters passed Proposition 2, which mandated better treatment for the hens that laid any eggs sold in California. I wrote a series of posts about the torturous journey Prop 2 went through before it finally was in enacted as law in 2015. As a result of Prop 2 and other legislation enacted in California, any eggs sold in California must comply with a number of standards regardless of if they were produced in California or somewhere else. The CA SEFS (California Shell Egg Food Safety) label on a carton indicates that the eggs in that carton meet that standard.
What requirements do egg producers have to meet to earn the right to that CA SEFS label? First of all, there are a number of stringent requirements about Salmonella, which are all laid out in California Code of Regulation Title 3 Section1350 (3 CCR 1350). As I discussed in the first article in this series, bacterial contamination of shell eggs is a real problem and Salmonella is the top disease-causing bacteria found in raw shell eggs. Salmonella can actually be inside the egg since it’s possible for it to live in a hen’s oviduct and become incorporated into the egg as the egg is being formed. In Britain, where they neither wash nor refrigerate eggs prior to sale to consumers, there’s a legal requirement that egg producers vaccinate their hens against Salmonella, which greatly diminishes the risk. There’s no such law on the books in the US, so while we do wash and refrigerate eggs here, there’s still a higher risk of Salmonella than if the eggs had come from vaccinated hens. But, CA SEFS compliant eggs have gone through additional monitoring steps to reduce the risk of Salmonella and in addition the hens have been vaccinated. If you eat eggs with the CA SEFS label, you can be guaranteed that your risk of getting sick from Salmonella is reduced. Why don’t they just say that on the carton? Well, I completely understand that it’s a hard thing to promote. It would be like saying, “Well, guys, eating undercooked eggs might make you sick. But the chance is smaller if you eat these eggs!” That’s hardly a glowing product endorsement.
The other requirement that needs to be met to display the CA SEFS label has to do with hen welfare. The language in Prop 2 was vague—it simply required that hens have enough room to fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. But it was a direct challenge to the egg industry since hens in battery cages can barely move. After Prop 2 passed, there was a lot of arguing back and forth regarding what the actual space requirement should be. Eventually, what the new regulations gave chickens was 116 square inches per bird. Battery caged hens spend their lives with 67 square inches of floor space - a space about equivalent to two egg cartons. CA SEFS hens get not quite four egg cartons worth of space. Nothing in the CA SEFS standards addresses other cruel egg industry practices like beak cutting or forced molting. And there’s nothing in the standards about allowing hens access to the outdoors.
Now that you know about the real meaning of “cage free” and CA SEFS, you must realize that both terms have some shortcomings in guaranteeing hen welfare. What if you, as a consumer, want to know for sure that the eggs you buy were laid by hens that were given access to the outdoors and that were treated in the most humane way? As I’ve mentioned many times before in this blog, there are no federal standards. There are a number of independent animal welfare certifying agencies, though, and many egg producers and distributers voluntarily take the necessary steps to be certified by those agencies. Look for that certification on the carton when you buy eggs! Here’s a list of certifying agencies ordered from most to least stringent:
Animal Welfare Approved: Each hen must have 259 square inches of space and be able to nest, perch, and dust-bathe. Hens must have continuous access to at least four square feet of outdoor space per bird and that space must be covered in growing vegetation. The flock can’t have more than 500 hens, and forced molting and beak cutting are not allowed. Hens who lay eggs in cartons with the “Animal Welfare Approved” label are living the good life.
Certified Humane: There are three levels – “Cage Free” hens must have 216 square inches of space and must be able to nest, perch, and dust-bathe. Hens don’t ever have to be let outdoors. “Free Range” hens must be allowed to live in the conditions provided Cage Free hens and must also have access to 2 square feet of outdoor space. This space need not have any living vegetation. “Pasture Raised” hens must be allowed to live in the conditions provided Cage Free hens and also have access for at least six hours every day to at least 108 square feet of outdoor space. This space must be “covered mainly with living vegetation.” All levels prohibit forced molting through starvation but do allow beak cutting.
American Humane Certified: Has four levels — “Enriched Colony Cages” are cages, and only slightly better than battery cages. Each hen must have 116 square inches of space. There are minimal requirements that allow for perching and nesting. “Cage Free” hens must have 180 square inches of space and must be able to nest and perch. Hens don’t ever have to be let outdoors. “Free Range” hens must be allowed to live in the conditions provided Cage Free hens and must also have access to 21.8 square feet of outdoor space. “Pasture” hens must be allowed to live in the conditions provided Cage Free hens and also have access to at least 108 square feet of outdoor space. This space must have “a substantial cover of living vegetation.” They don’t specify a minimum period of time for outdoor access. All levels prohibit forced molting through starvation but do allow beak cutting.
Food Alliance Certified: Each hen must have 117 square inches of cage-free floor space. Hens must have access for eight hours each day to the outdoors or “natural daylight” (like windows). Outdoor space must have living vegetation. Hens must be able to nest, perch, and dust-bathe. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited but beak cutting is allowed.
UEP Certified: The United Egg Producers is an egg industry group. There are two levels. “Caged” hens live in cruel battery cages and get 67 square inches of space per hen – not enough to turn around or flap their wings. “Cage Free” hens have 144 square inches per hen with some requirements for perching and nesting. Hens don’t ever have to be let outdoors. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited at both levels but beak cutting is allowed.
When Wild Harvest proclaims on its carton that the eggs contained within are cage free, which certifying agency standards are they using? And which agency is standing behind their claim? That’s a very good question. No certification label at all appears on the carton.
I contacted Supervalu and asked them to identify their egg supplier, to indicate if they participated in any certification program, and a number of questions about the welfare of the hens. In their initial response, the folks at Supervalu said they would forward my questions to their supplier, but in a follow-up, they told me that they couldn’t provide detailed answers to my questions and instead provided a link to their website that discusses their animal welfare practices. The information there includes a statement that “SuperValu will support animal treatment programs that are adopted as industry standards” which I read to mean that they support the standards of the UEP, the egg industry group that allows cruel battery cages. They also proclaim that they’ll transition to 100% cage-free eggs by 2025. That is certainly a step in the right direction, but bear in mind that the eggs I just bought from Wild Harvest were already cage free (as are “nearly 12 percent of SuperValu’s total grocery retail egg sales”). And bear in mind the “Cage Free” designation, regardless of which agency is certifying it, still allows for beak cutting, minimal floor space per hen, and does not guarantee that any hen will ever set foot outdoors. Considering that the Wild Harvest brand exists to cater to consumers who prefer “organic and natural products” this hardly seems good enough.
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