While standing in front of the eggs in the already chilly section of the grocery store, many of us find ourselves face to face with a moral decision. Splurge on the cage-free eggs that cost three time as much but enable hens to live better lives? Or buy a dozen of the regular ol’ styrofoam-encased omelette makers for $1.89?
No matter which you choose on any given day, it really doesn’t matter because for the most part, cage-free eggs are bogus and you’re not helping any chickens by buying them.
‘Most commercial cage-free systems are designed to hold thousands and in some cases up to 100,000 hens in cramped quarters, with no natural daylight and no access to the outdoors.’
While the hens that produce eggs labeled cage-free aren’t technically locked in tiny cages, they might as well be. They’re still typically packed tightly together in extremely close quarters and never see the outdoors. Only one square foot per hen is required for eggs to be certified cage-free—a minimum producers stick with because less room for the chickens leads to more profits. Our idea that the hens producing our cage-free eggs are roaming wild on open pasture, grazing on grass and perching on fences in the way that we’d ideally like to imagine commercial farms, is completely misguided.
To learn more about why consumers are so misguided about the conditions of cage-free hens and how we can buy eggs that are raised more humanely, we talked with Betsy Babcock, CEO and co-founder of Handsome Brook Farm. The farm, which she says is the fastest-growing privately owned egg company in America, offers healthier, richer eggs from pasture-raised chickens who each have over 108 square feet of pasture to roam and forage. In March 2016, Handsome Brook Farm and its packing facilities were certified by American Humane, the first certification program in the U.S. to ensure the humane treatment of farm animals.
What don’t consumers know about eggs labeled cage-free and free-range? What is life like for these hens and how does it compare differently to the lives of caged hens?
While more humane than caged systems—where hens are confined five to 10 hens in a small cage, all but immobilized—most consumers are not aware that cage-free systems often do not provide the humane and free living conditions that people expect. Most commercial cage-free systems are designed to hold thousands and in some cases up to 100,000 hens in cramped quarters, with no natural daylight and no access to the outdoors.
Why are egg producers able to mislead consumers with these terms?
The challenge in the industry and for consumers is that there is no legal definition for terms such as ‘cage-free’, ‘free-range’ and ‘pasture raised’. You need to look for certification by third party certifiers like American Humane, who provide minimum standards surrounding the terms.
Eggs labeled cage-free are often double to triple the price. If the hens are hardly given more space, why the high price point?
There can be a number of reasons for the increased price, one being that of the highest cost of raising a hen is the feed. When a hen is able to move about more freely (as they can do in a cage free system) they eat more, and that translates into a higher feed cost and ultimately higher cost to the consumer. In addition, there are fewer hens per barn in a cage free barn than in a caged barn, which means less efficiency and higher cost.
Where does morality come into the way eggs are marketed and the way consumers buy them?
Many consumers today are concerned not only about the price of the egg, but of the animal welfare associated with raising it, egg quality and taste and a desire to support family farms. Handsome Brook Farm sees this a truly positive movement in the egg industry, and our goal is to support all these aspects. The lack of consistency in the meaning of egg carton labeling terms makes it more challenging for consumers to make informed decisions, and we would like to be part of the conversation over the course of time to help more clearly define legal standards for egg carton terms.
What is Handsome Brook Farm doing differently?
We focus on raising what we call ‘pasture raised eggs’—eggs from farms where chickens are able to spend a large portion of their day outdoors scratching and foraging on grass, flowers, grit and bugs. A typical day is that around 10 AM (after most hens have laid their eggs), our farmers open their barn doors so that the hens can move freely between indoors and outdoors. At dusk, they shut the doors again so that the hens have a nice, safe place to sleep. We don’t even have to herd the chickens to come inside. They come on in on their own as it starts to get dark.
When did you start Handsome Brook Farm? How has business been going?
We started Handsome Brook Farm in 2007 as a farmstay bed and breakfast with just five or six hens. Our guests consistently raved about how delicious our eggs were, so we decided to do some research on why our eggs might be different. What we found was that, at that time, there were no options in most grocery egg cases where you could get eggs from chickens who were encouraged to go outdoors on pasture—not even most organic hens. We began selling our eggs at a local farmer’s market and to friends and family, as well as to our B&B guests. As demand grew, we started buying eggs from friends and neighbors who raised their chickens the same way we did and sold them as Handsome Brook Farm Pasture Raised Eggs. That became the basis of our model—working together with other farms that shared our goals of raising hens humanely, and providing a pasture space where they could forage and act like chickens. Our first large grocery store started carrying our eggs in 2011. Business has been really good. Our growth has been excellent and encouraging due to positive customer response, as customers tell us they can really can taste the difference. We’re available in major grocery chains like Kroger, Publix, Wegman’s and Sprouts.
Is anyone else selling pasture-raised eggs?
Yes, first of all you can find pasture-raised eggs from farms at your local farmer’s market. In addition to Handsome Brook Farm, there are a number of other brands including Nest Fresh, Egg Innovations, Alexandre Kids and Nature’s Yolk.