For several years now, I've been fortunate enough to share my land with a small flock of chickens, so I've missed what appears to be a growing trend in supermarkets: eggs from hens fed a vegetarian diet. 

I'm going to get right to the point for those that would prefer not to peck around the issue: chickens are not vegetarians. It is not a natural diet at all for them, and it's also potentially harmful to their well-being. 

If you've never owned or spent any time with these intelligent and curious animals, I completely understand why this is news. The thing is, chickens are expert scavengers — picking and scratching at the ground for not only plants and seeds, but also worms, grubs, flies and anything else that moves. I've seen my chickens kill snakes, swallow frogs whole, and even fight over scraps after the cleaning of a deer. In the latter example, both my dogs and barn cats kept a safe distance from the feathery meat-eaters going mad around my ankles. You really don't want to get between a chicken and its meal. 

So why are egg producers all of a sudden replacing the chicken's omnivorous diet with one focused completely on grains, corn and soy? As Jill Winger over at The Prairie Homestead explains, a lot of it is due to marketing, new laws, and a growing disdain from the American public over anything that includes animal by-products. 

"The 'animal by-products' that pop up in ingredient lists in various animal feeds can include blood, same-species meat, feathers, rendered road kill, and euthanized dogs and cats," she writes. For anyone curious about animal feed ingredients, it's stomach-turning, but the by-product issue has also raised bigger questions about species ingesting their own species.

"So laws started to change and producers and consumers alike started watching more closely what animals were eating," she adds. "And if most people had to choose, eggs from chickens fed a vegetarian diet sound much better than eggs from chickens fed slaughterhouse waste (or worse)."

chickens eating bugs

From a young age, chickens are instinctively drawn to chase and consume anything that happens to move in front of them. (Photo: Shutterstock)

As Winger and others have sought to explain, the problem with this transition to all-vegetarian feed is that it results in the reduction of an essential protein-based amino acid known as methionine. True free-range chickens receive plenty of this amino acid in their diets from bugs, plants and other critters. Those chickens involved in the mass production of eggs (read: factory farms), receive it as a synthetic supplement. Doesn't sound all that natural, does it? Even worse for the chickens, federal organic policies restrict how much artificial methionine they can receive. As a result, the birds fall ill and may even become irritable to the point of violence, their appetites twisted toward pecking each other in search of negated nutrients. 

"The birds are suffering," Ernie Peterson, owner of Cashton Farm Supply, told The Washington Post. "It’s not right that we are forcing this diet on them. We have people who are supposed to worry about animal welfare. Where are they? This is cruelty." 

So where does this leave consumers eager for eggs that come from chickens enjoying a truly natural diet? The simple answer is get to know your local farmer. Visiting the local farmers markets and asking questions about their eggs is the only sure-fire way to know the conditions the chickens are raised in. You'll also find it's better for you too. According to Mother Earth News, pastured eggs on average contain five times more vitamin D, two-thirds more vitamin A, two times more omega-3 fats, three times more vitamin E, and seven times more beta carotene.

So skip the supermarket and head straight to the farmers market. Or better yet, cut out the middleman and consider raising your own flock. If you must consume eggs, it's best to know where they're coming from than to trust the feel-good marketing on the labels. But whatever path you take, just remember: chickens are most definitely not vegetarians. 

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Michael d'Estries ( @michaeldestries ) covers science, technology, art, and the beautiful, unusual corners of our incredible world.

No, chickens are not vegetarians
Egg producers are increasingly advertising their chickens as 'vegetarian' thanks to a diet free of animal byproducts. Here's why that isn't a good thing.