On a recent trip in Hawaii I was surprised to crack an egg and discover a fluorescent yellow yolk! It looked like something straight out of the cartoons, and I was even more surprised to discover this was considered normal by my American friends. In general I choose free-range eggs back home and they're brown shelled with orange yolks, but when staying at a friends house who had their own chooks in the backyard I was surprised again, the yolks were a dark orange, thicker and full of so much flavour!
There's a lot of different labels when it comes to eggs and chicken these days and it can be confusing to know what exactly it all means and how it impacts the ethical, health and even taste choices we make. The big three factors that impact the labeling are space, housing and diet.
This ones a big no-no on the humane front. Given barely enough space to fit their bodies into, eating pellets at one end and popping out eggs at the other. They are entirely prevented from moving or engaging in any of the normal behaviours of a chicken. Their overall health is terrible. Many factories practice beak cutting to supposedly prevent injurious pecking and forced starvation to induce feather molting which manipulates the egg cycle production.
Cage-Free and Barn laid
This can be a bit of a lead on, whilst technically uncaged various countries laws can allow the numbers of chickens per square metre to be so high that movement is still not possible. Many birds contract diseases and deformities from sitting all day. Beak cutting and starvation can still be practiced, and their diets consists again of pellets and seeds. Producers can get certified by animal welfare companies such as RSPCA if they adhere to certain requirements and undergo regular check ups but once again the conditions for the chickens is not a particularly healthy or humane one.
Free Range/Pasture Raised
Unlike the first two options this actually allows chickens to live and act in their natural environment. The get to walk, nest, perch, spread their wings, dust-bath and importantly forage! Chickens are not in fact vegetarians, they're omnivores like us! Their healthiest diets include lots of bugs and worms that they scrounge and pull out of the ground. However, 'Free-range' labels do not always indicate the amount of time chickens spend outdoors versus in barns and the amount per hectare can vary on each company. Producers can seek third-part certifications but it is not mandatory.
Can be Barn-laid with access to the outdoors or Free-range. Once again duration, quality and space can be varied depending on the company. What makes them different from the other options is the chickens are provided an organic diet free of antibiotics, hormones and pesticides.
The down side is labels may not be as humane as we think they are, beak-cutting, forced molting through starvation and the amount of space provided varies and they don't necessarily guarantee hormone-free. Producers often pump chickens full of growth hormones to make them grow larger and quicker for meat sales.
So how do we make a humane choice? Firstly cross cage and barn-laid off your shopping list. The difference in price is minute these days and the quality of life of the chicken is huge. Advocates such as renowned Chef Jamie Oliver have been pushing for supermarkets to remove caged eggs altogether. Secondly read the labels, look for third-party certifications, hormone and antibiotic-free and information about their housing and diets. Many cartons do feature this information on there, but you can also check their websites for more details. But lastly the proof is in the pudding, if your eggs have come from a healthy chicken the difference in look, taste and texture is undeniable.