Call a bubbly wine made in California "champagne," and you're asking for legal trouble from the captains of the global wine industry. And if you call a conventionally grown potato "organic," the enforcement branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture will be at your door as soon as it unearths the fraud.
But raise a chicken in a cage, and you're free to make almost any claims you want to sell the bird's eggs. That's because federal laws that regulate animal-welfare terminology on egg cartons leave some gaping loopholes while basically allowing producers to make their own interpretations of just what "free-range," "cage-free" and "pasture-raised" really mean.
"There's no standardization of the cage-free regulations," says Lesley Brabyn, who farms a free-ranging flock of 450 organic ducks for meat and eggs at Salmon Creek Ranch near Bodega Bay. "Some people are putting chicken cages in their pasture and calling their eggs 'pasture-raised.' You really have to be careful."
Federal law assures that poultry and chicken eggs billed as cage-free or free-range did not originate in cages. However, producers of poultry and eggs who raise their birds in the cramped dwellings called battery cages are not required to reveal their farming methods to consumers. Worse, these producers may use meaningless terms—such as "animal-friendly," for one—that can easily mislead consumers.
"The lack of federal oversight allows producers to use unregulated claims all they want," says Erica Meier, the executive director of Compassion Over Killing. Her organization, based in Washington, D.C., has been urging the Food and Drug Administration since 2006 to enforce regulations over language and imagery used on egg cartons. The administration, she says, has shown little interest in taking action.
However, a federal bill introduced to Congress in February proposes to ban battery cages in America while also requiring that every egg carton be clearly labeled to assure that consumers know without uncertainty just where and how their eggs were grown. Currently, numerous labeling terms appear on egg cartons, including "animal welfare–approved," "free-roaming," "vegetarian-fed" and many others. The new laws, according to Josh Balk, a spokesperson with the Humane Society of the United States, a major backer of the Congress bill, would offer egg producers four clear labeling options: eggs from caged hens, eggs from enriched cages, eggs from cage-free hens and eggs from free-range hens.
Meanwhile, there is some level of industry oversight from retailers. Whole Foods, for one, conducts its own inspections of vendors who claim that their eggs are pasture-raised, which is an unregulated term.
"They want to see the chickens outside in the grass," says Don Gilardi, who owns and operates RedHill Farm in West Marin. Here, Gilardi keeps about 5,000 hens on his family's 100-year-old property, where he says the birds "have access to the outdoors 24-7."
Gilardi says that price can be a telling indicator of how an egg was produced, and he assures there is no way to produce pasture-raised eggs cheaply. His RedHill eggs, which he gathers by hand, go for more than $8 a dozen.
In Sebastopol, farmer Marc Felton bills his chicken eggs as "pasture raised," and in local retail stores they go for $7 a dozen.
"They're expensive, and I have to educate my customers and explain why these eggs are better and healthier and worth the price," Felton says. His 1,500 hens roam freely over 30-plus acres of land, he says. They lay about a thousand eggs per day, and at night he leaves the doors to their coops open. Electric fencing protects them from predators.
But most hens in America live less picturesque lives. About 280 million egg hens live on farms across the country, including 1.8 million in Sonoma County. (The American poultry industry, meanwhile, consists of about 9 billion birds.) About 95 percent of these laying hens live in cages, according to the industry group, United Egg Producers, which states in its online cage guidelines for farmers that a single caged hen needs only 67 to 86 square inches of living space. The same website also defends the standard industry practice of slicing off a chicken's beak at birth. "Scientific evidence," the site states, "shows that beak trimming rarely compromises animal well-being. In fact, beak trimming actually helps reduce pecking, feather pulling, cannibalism and decreases mortality." After about two years of laying eggs, most factory-farmed egg hens are euthanized when their productivity begins to wane. Male chicks, roughly one for every female born at commercial hatcheries, are killed at birth.
In February, the Marin Humane Society participated in a hen rescue at a farm in Turlock, where the owner had abandoned the facility and left 50,000 chickens without food or care for two weeks. Roughly 17,000 hens had starved by the time authorities arrived on Feb. 21, and almost 30,000 more birds were later euthanized. About 4,600 were saved, of which 400 went to the Marin Humane Society. Here, according to chief operating officer John Reese, the chickens are up for adoption. Reese says that adopters are screened to assure that the chickens aren't used for commercial egg production.
"We're adopting them out as companion animals, but of course [the hens] offer the benefit of laying eggs," Reese says.
At the commercial level, incoming state regulations pose to brighten the lives of California's egg chickens. Proposition 2, passed by voters in 2008, will take effect in 2015 by banning battery cages, as well as veal cages and gestation crates, in which female pigs may spend months or years virtually unable to move. Animal-welfare advocates have applauded Proposition 2, but not Brabyn at Salmon Creek Ranch.
"To say that every egg in California is going to be pasture-raised isn't even possible," she says.
Brabyn says the new rules will create a significant decrease in the state's egg-producing capacity. Many farms, she thinks, will raise their prices, while others may leave the state.
Meier, whose organization promotes a vegan diet and lifestyle, also doubts that pasture-raised hens on the available land could meet the demand for eggs in America. And that, to her, leaves one easy solution to alleviating the suffering of caged birds.
"There are alternatives to eggs, and we would need to cut back on how many we eat," she says. "If we were to take all hens out of cages, I think we'd need to modify our eating habits."