07 August 2011

Which came first, the chicken or the guilt?

When I go to the grocery store, two items on my list bring me to a complete stop in the aisle: ice cream, because it’s one of my major food groups, and eggs, because they completely confuse me. When the organic food craze swept over America, buying eggs went from simply checking for cracks to interpreting the complex language of labels designed to lull the consumer into thinking they’re choosing the “happy chicken” eggs. Labels like “natural”, “cage-free” and “free-range” sound nice and evoke images of curious hens scratching at worms and flapping their wings in the sun. But the lack of regulation in labeling means that those pleasant words can be used to describe a variety of realities.

I know that I am voting with my dollar in the grocery store, and I don’t want to support huge factory farms where the chickens are abused. So I shiver in front of the egg section long enough to read over every option and usually end up choosing the one that makes me feel the least guilty. I try to find a compromise between price, distance the eggs have traveled from farm to grocer’s cooler, and animal welfare labeling.

I completely ignore anything that tries to grab me with “natural”. Well duh, eggs are natural. That means nothing to me. “Certified Organic” can mean a few things. According to The Humane Society of the United States, this describes uncaged birds indoors, with some sort of outdoor access – the likes of which is undefined. “Certified Organic” eggs were laid by chickens fed an all-vegetarian diet, free of antibiotics and pesticides. But “free-range” is the one that makes me frown. The United States Department of Agriculture, which determines an egg producer’s organic status, has no standards for free-range egg production.

The United Egg Producers have been battling against the concern of high cholesterol levels in eggs for the last 40 years, says ScienceDaily. Now the market is shifting to include consumers who want to know that chickens are being treated humanely in the warehouses. Ninety-five percent of chickens used in egg production in the U.S. live in tightly packed cages that limit movement and natural behavior. The industry, however, still permits “cage-free” labeling to describe that living condition. Sheila Rodriguez, a clinical associate professor at the Rutgers School of Law–Camden, explains this inaccuracy in her article "The Morally Informed Consumer: Examining Animal Welfare Claims on Egg Labels."

After years of guilt-plagued grocery shopping, mooching eggs from friends with small flocks, and getting the occasional carton from the farmers’ market, I have finally made a real commitment to my own happy chickens. Today I welcomed three Americana hens into my backyard. At three weeks old they are not yet ready to produce eggs, but I know it will be worth the wait. 

I give you Sarah Palin, Liz Lemon, and Cindy Lou Who.

1 comment:

  1. So which one is Palin? The one cowering behind the other two?
    Jokes aside, your point about the eggs does make you wonder about the source of our food. How is it produced and where does it come from? Why do we use up to 97 calories in fossil fuel to ship one calorie of produce from CA to NY? (per Lappe's Diet for a Small Planet)? And how do you ensure that the food was produced in a ethical manner if labels provided by industry are almost worthless? It makes a dialogue with you local farmer seem all the more important.