I was putting eggs away the other day and noticed that my roommate Paul had bought a dozen of the same—almost.  

Our eggs came from the same farm, which purports to use vegetarian feed and eschews antibiotics and hormones (the law prohibits poultry producers from using hormones, so that’s not a particularly eloquent declaration).  But my eggs called themselves “Certified Organic Eggs from Cage Free Hens” and sported a $4.59 price tag, while Paul’s claimed to be “Natural Eggs from Free Roaming Hens” and cost $2.99.

Was one of us getting duped?  Did Paul think he was getting a decent deal on sustainably produced eggs, when in fact they were just trendily named imposters?  Or was I paying an empty premium for food because it was splashed with the word “organic”?

It’s complicated.

Free-range chickens, those carefree roamers of the pasture, right?  Not really.  Chickens sold under the free-range label can still be debeaked.  They can also be given antibiotics, hormones, pesticides and animal by-products to eat.  They may be force-molted (artificially starved to induce additional production).  No rules regulate how accessible the outside is: unlocking the henhouse door for five minutes a day would count.  In large facilities, the exit is obstructed with thousands of other chickens and feed comes from hoppers inside the poultry shed, so chickens have few reasons even to go outside or even know that outside exists.  Furthermore, no rules regulate what the chickens range on if they do make it through the hole: sun-kissed clover?  Pecked-over dirt covered in chicken manure?  An acre of grass sod can handle about four tons of chicken manure per year, the output of eighty chickens.  Pasturing a gigantic amount of chickens is nearly impossible—their manure would kill off all the grass.

In other words, you can put a free-range label on chickens that spend all day, every day in fields eating grubs and wildflowers, AND chickens that live in artificially-lit warehouses with 10,000 other chickens (so long as the warehouse has an exit).  “Natural,” which means that no artificial products have been added, means zilch when it comes to eggs, which, given the shell that surrounds them, don’t really lend themselves to being injected with foreign substances.

Organic hens don’t get debeaked, so theoretically they have more room to move around in, or they’d all kill each other.  But there’s nothing that regulates the quality of organic hen rangeland, either.  

The only way, it seems, to buy eggs that actually come from happy chickens is to get them from a farm small enough that the chickens don’t turn the yard into a toxic quagmire.  Misleadingly, neither the “organic” nor the “free-range” labels guarantee that.

Story by Nathalie Jordi. This article originally appeared in Plenty in February 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007