by Jeff Clemetson, Editor
As Congress wraps up the details of the nation’s Farm Bill, there is one amendment that hasn’t received the same attention as some of the more glamorous stuff like GMO-labeling and corn subsidies. The so-called “Egg Bill” doesn’t have much of a chance of passing but it is an interesting piece of legislation that has ramifications for both the nutrition of our country’s eggs and the welfare of the chickens that lay them.
The Egg Bill was created as a compromise between the United Egg Producers and the Humane Society of the United States. The bill would force egg producers to abandon the practice of confined cages in favor of a more humane cage that allows chickens some room to move about. Opposition to the Egg Bill came almost immediately –from both sides of the political spectrum. From the right, large corporate dairy interests, as well members of beef and pork producers who fear that their industries will be targeted next for more humane practices, lobbied Congress to kill the bill, arguing economic Armageddon for dairy farmers if it passed. From the left, groups like PETA argued that the bill didn’t go far enough because it still sanctions keeping chickens in cages and didn’t outlaw some of the other egregious practices of egg producers like beak removal and forced molting.
The compromise for the Egg Bill between the Humane Society and the UEP is not without precedent. California and several other states have already passed humane cage laws, which is one reason why the bill is being proposed at a national level – to avoid a confusing patchwork of state laws for the nation’s egg farmers.
Confusion in the egg industry is nothing new to todays consumers. Just look at the egg isle at the bevy of different claims on egg cartons, it’s enough to make you spin. Cage-Free, Free-Range, Pastured, Omega-3-Enriched, Organic, Certified Humane, UEP Certified – all these fancy titles tell something about the egg and the way it was produced, but none of them tell the whole story about the nutritional content of the egg and the way the chicken that laid it is treated.
For example, eggs from “Cage-Free” chickens are not kept in the battery cages that the Egg Bill is trying to outlaw, but that does not mean that they are roaming outside either. Cage-Free chickens are often kept inside buildings where they have some room to roam and lay eggs in nest boxes, but the cramped quarters means they are most likely treated with antibiotics. Likewise, “Free-Range” chickens are allowed outside to roam for a while, but there is no set time on how long they must be outside per day to make the claim. Also, these chickens can also be debeaked and forced to molt through starvation.
As you can see, labels mean very little. The best egg you can buy is one you get from a local farmer you know that raises chickens naturally pastured and fed organic grasses and bugs. These eggs are rich with natural Omega-3s and have been described by many nutrition experts as the perfect food for its balance of protein and good cholesterol. A naturally pastured chicken roams outside in the sunlight, feeding on its natural choices for food – bugs and grasses. The sun adds Vitamin D to the eggs and the worms and bugs it feeds on enriches the egg with Omega-3s. Equally important, although less obvious, the chicken lives without stress, which does effect the nutrition quality of the egg the same way stress effects the embryo of a pregnant woman.
And this is where the Egg Bill does help. Despite its obvious government intrusion into the practices of farmers and the obvious fact that chickens will still be subject to a life in a cage (although larger), the eggs produced by chickens raised in battery cages are more stressed, more pumped with antibiotics and generally less healthy than those produced by more humanely raised chickens. Whether you agree or not with government regulation or with allowing farmers to still cage chickens, you always have the choice to do the right thing – find local farms and buy their organic, pasture-raised eggs.