Understanding chicken and egg labels for your own health
You are what you eat. I am sure you have heard that expression before. So if our general health and well-being can be affected by what we eat, would the same be true for chickens? I ask because I eat chickens. Thus, it would seem to hold true that if I am what I eat and the chicken is what the chicken eats then I am what the chicken eats. Therefore, should I not be more aware of what my chickens are eating? With the array of chicken and egg products now available it can be quite confusing when trying to determine the best choice for you and your family. What is the difference between organic, free-range, uncaged, cage-free, unmedicated, vegetarian and naturally nested chickens?
Let us begin by defining the term organic, as this term is regulated by the USDA. The exact terms of that regulation can be seen in the Organic Food Production Act of 1990. As with all legal documents the language is unwieldy. I will include relevant excerpts then express it in more straight forward terms.
“To be sold or labeled as an organically produced agricultural product under this title, an agricultural product shall—(1) have been produced and handled without the use of synthetic chemicals, except as otherwise provided in this title; (2) except as otherwise provided in this title and excluding livestock, not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products; and (3) be produced and handled in compliance with an organic plan agreed to by the producer and handler of such product and the certifying agent.”
“For a farm to be certified under this title as an organic farm with respect to the livestock produced by such farm, producers on such farm – (1) shall feed such livestock organically produced feed that meets the requirements of this title; (2) shall not use the following feed—(A) plastic pellets for roughage; (B) manure refeeding; or (C) feed formulas containing urea; and (3) shall not use growth promoters and hormones on such livestock, whether implanted, ingested, or injected, including antibiotics and synthetic trace elements used to stimulate growth or production of such livestock.”
“For a farm to be certified under this title as an organic farm with respect to the livestock produced by such farm, producers on such farm shall not—(A) use subtherapeutic doses of antibiotics; (B) use synthetic internal parasiticides on a routine basis; or (C) administer medication, other than vaccinations, in the absence of illness.”
“With the exception of day old poultry, all poultry from which meat or eggs will be sold or labeled as organically produced shall be raised and handled in accordance with this title prior to and during the period in which such meat or eggs are sold.”
In other words, for a chicken or its eggs to be labeled organic it must be feed only organic feed and receive no antibiotics, growth hormones or medication except as is needed for treating illness or vaccination. So, because the chicken is fed organic foods and not being pumped full of unnecessary chemicals and medications it should be a healthier bird. As to the chickens well-being—organic labeling does not require humane treatment. That is where the other labels come into play.
Cage-free or Uncaged
For instance cage-free or uncaged means the chickens are not confined to cages. They are allowed some freedom. However, the chickens might still be confined in a coop, barn or warehouse.
Natuaral, Natuarally Raised or Natuarally Nested
Natural, naturally raised or naturally nested are unregulated terms. As a result the term is of little use to the consumer. Unless you wish to do a little research and determine what the company means by the label, bearing in mind that you must trust the company to maintain that standard, the natural label is best ignored.
The vegetarian label speaks only to the chickens’ diet. However, as we previously discussed you are what your chicken eats. And according to Cherian, Holsonbake and Goeger in “Fatty acid composition and egg components of specialty eggs” (Poultry Science, Vol 81, Issue 1, 30-33) cage-free vegetarian chickens produce eggs with less yolk, a greater edible portion and a lower total lipid content.
Omega-3 Enriched or Omega-3 Enhanced
Omega-3 enriched or enhanced means that the chickens were feed fish oil or flaxseed thereby providing you with omega 3. However, this term is also unregulated so the amount of omega-3 you are getting could be miniscule.
Unmedicated, No Antibiotics or No Hormones
Unmedicated and no antibiotics are also terms that are unregulated and therefore hold little meaning. As for the term no hormones, when applied to poultry, it is redundant. The USDA does not allow hormone use on chickens.
Free-range or Free-roaming
The terms free-range or free-roaming can be used interchangeably. In order to use this label the USDA states “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” However, there are no requirements about the amount of time outside or the quality of the outdoor access. Still some outdoor access would seem to be better than none.
Because there is so little regulation regarding labeling in reference to the welfare of the chickens, other organizations have provided certifications of their own: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, Food Alliance Certified and United Egg Producers Certified. If you are concerned about animal welfare and would like to know more about the relevance of egg labels to animal welfare the Humane Society of the United States has an article “A brief guide to labels and animal welfare” which may be of interest.
Hopefully, this information will help you know yourself a little better (or at least what you are eating).