Starting with this post, I'm going to tell you what some of those labels actually mean. Let's start with eggs.
The issues here are whether the laying hens are kept in so-called battery cages, unable to nest, perch and dust-bathe, and what kind of food they get to eat.
Cartons of standard eggs, of course the least expensive variety of eggs, make no statements about either question. But most producers follow the guidelines of United Egg Producers. This usually means that the hens spend their lives together inside wire cages. The point of their beaks is sliced off so they can not hurt each other. They can also be forced to produce more eggs by being starved periodically, or by having their food rations reduced, and then allowed to eat again. (This practice goes by the less shocking name of forced molting: they lose all their feathers because they are starving.) United Egg Producers claims the hens have enough room to spread their wings and are healthier because they can not catch diseases outdoors. (Maybe we should keep people inside too?) They can be fed antibiotics and their food may have been treated with pesticides.
The more expensive eggs have a variety of labels that are not defined on the packages, and which seem to be overlapping or very similar. Here's what they really mean:
Cage Free: No battery cages for these hens. They are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may not have access to the outdoors. So at least they can move around. Beak-cutting and starvation are permitted. This label implies nothing about what the hens eat. No one audits growers to make sure the hens are really kept this way.
Free Range: Essentially the same as Cage Free, but the hens are presumed to have some access to the outdoors. No auditing.
Certified Humane: The big difference here is that the egg farmers are audited by Certified Humane, a program of Humane Farm Animal Care. Surprisingly, however, the treatment of the hens is essentially the same as Cage Free--there's no requirement that the hens get to go outside. But there are standards for the number of hens kept inside the space and the number of perches and nesting boxes available to them. And, while beak-cutting is permitted, starvation is not. No guarantees about the quality of the diet they receive.
Certified Organic: They are uncaged, must have outdoor access, and eat an organic all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. But beak-cutting and starvation are allowed. This is a program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it is enforced through third-party auditing.
A word about another label claim that has nothing to do with animal cruelty: omega-3 enriched eggs. These come from hens that have been fed a diet rich in these fatty acids, often from flaxseed. The egg yolks from hens on this diet contain more of these healthful omega-3s.
The price of cage-free or organic eggs can be 50 percent or even more than for standard eggs. But consider the price the hens are paying! Wealthier folk should pony up the extra $ to push the industry in a more humane direction. Eventually, perhaps, the era of factory farming will be just a bad memory.
Next time: meat and dairy labels.