Almost every time you go to the supermarket for a big haul, you’ll be treated to a modern dilemma: Do I buy the cheapo two dollar eggs, or the "cage-free" ones that tend to cost twice as much per dozen?
Do the more expensive eggs taste better? Are they healthier? Does it mean the egg-laying hens’ lives are more comfortable and humane? Even if we can credibly say yes to all of the above, is that difference worth the two-buck premium?
The answer I received from a veterinary student at Western University last week was, effectively, not really:
When you see these eggs side by side on the supermarket shelf they look exactly the same. Why would someone [like me] pick the one that costs twice as much?
Just ahead of this query, I’d spent an hour lecturing to the "Vet Issues" class at our nation’s newest veterinary college on a wide variety of poultry concerns: animal welfare, animal economics, green marketing, U.S. food policy, human health, and human nature, among others. If it affects the birds we grow for food, I tried to fit it in.
Which is probably why I didn’t have a good answer, so tunnel visioned was I from attempting to sustain a 35,000-foot vista on my subject. Hence, I’d be mulling it over for more than a week before a decent reply could be managed.
Not that I didn’t try. Here was my first attempt:
You think $4 is expensive? Living with laying hens, as I do, I will never ever make the mistake of believing supermarket prices have anything to do with the real price of eggs. We have lost touch with what food really costs due to farm subsidies, a vertical integration system that shorts its animal entities, and a variety of practices designed to streamline production — which are often detrimental to animal welfare, the environment, and sometimes to human health, as seen in last August’s egg recall.
Paying $4 for eggs when a two-dollar dozen is right next to it is just like voting. Every single time you buy those $4 eggs, you inform the egg industry that you care about what those four-buck eggs stand for: animal welfare, food safety, and environmental sustainability, among other social concerns.
And what’s a $2 difference anyway? You’re likely to be spending a buck on a high-fructose corn syrup-based beverage at least a couple of times over the course of those eggs-in-your-fridge lifespan. Care to compare the true value of these two disparate offerings? Ultimately, it's the fact that we're so out of touch with what food really costs and how it's made that we actually believe $4 is a pricey dozen —when indeed the American egg is perhaps the cheapest protein on planet Earth.
OK, so that’s roughly what I said (though it no doubt sounds neater in print). Yet it didn’t sound quite right when it came out of my mouth. Perhaps it wasn't the whole story, and maybe it wasn't really addressing the heart of the matter.
At first, I worried about the issue of "voting" for the right thing. After all, the labels on these cartons are so confusing! And no one wants to pay extra for something that isn’t what they think it is, right?
To that end, I’ve compiled a quick (and USDA-referenced) guide to what the common labels mean:
Organic : Here’s what the USDA’s Amber Waves publication (on the economics of the ag industry) has to say:
While eco-labels for poultry and eggs — such as free range, natural, cage-free, and no antibiotics — have proliferated for years, only the organic label is regulated by USDA and addresses the range of concerns cited by consumers.
This statement asserts that USDA’s regulatory muscle is brought to bear with respect to the minimum standards and compliance issues related to organic labeling. But it also says "free-range" and "cage-free" are voluntary labels that are neither required nor vetted by any regulatory body or third-party source.
Too true. All those "cage-free" labels? They may or may not be indicating what you think they are, the fickly unregulated definitions of "cageless" and "freedom" being what they are in animal agriculture these days.
Humane Certified: This label is akin to the "Good Housekeeping" seal of approval. It’s designed and delivered by the AHA (American Humane Association), which attempts to set standards for the humane treatment of animals via this free market. Voluntary vehicle producers can choose to apply these labels to their cartons or not. Whether these AHA standards make the grade is another issue, but let it suffice to say that I believe any standards above the USDA’s milquetoast regs (even for organic products) can only be a good thing.
Yet even after evaluating these consternation-inducing issues, I came to the conclusion that it didn't rightly matter whether the carton says cage-free or home-grown or happiest-birds. The bottom line is the same. You are informing the number-crunchers of this world that you care about hens and how they, their eggs and even their waste are treated. And these pencil pushers are telling the rest of the world how YOU vote...
These choices will inevitably trickle down to even the lowest common denominator producers and will ultimately inform the kind of oversight producers are subject to.
So you should buy those $4 eggs if you believe in what they represent, not only because casting a vote is a good thing, but because it's the right thing to do. This is what I think was missing from my original answer:
Buying $4 eggs is a moral choice. Unless you truly cannot afford an extra $2 a week (and not because you're investing in Dunkin' Donuts and Coke), believing in more humane, more sustainable, healthier eggs means you are morally obligated to pay the premium.
What if the $2 eggs are right next to the $4 eggs and you can't resist?
Well, you wouldn't steal the cheaper dozen if you knew you wouldn't get caught, right?
Dr. Patty Khuly
Pic of the day: "Natural eggs" by Me