Sometimes not much. Sometimes lies. Sometimes innuendo. And sometimes downright misleading information.
What piqued my curiosity was the announcement that the Governor of Colorado, my adopted state because all my kids and grandkids choose to live here, recently signed a bill into law that will require all eggs sold in Colorado to be raised by cage-free hens by Jan. 1, 2025.
Other states, including California, Oregon, Washington and Massachusetts, have passed similar laws. Those are states that a Nebraska native has a hard time accepting that my adopted state runs with that crowd.
I think the first impression that most had after reading of the passing of the bill was an image of a nice white farm house with a wraparound porch, a big newly painted red barn, a few hogs in a pen of mud and chickens running around in the grass looking for bugs and other edible stuff.
There are no solid definitions of what constitutes cage, cage-free, free-range or pasture-raised eggs.
Caged means most likely three to eight hens per cage. The cage protects them from predators and allows the farmer easier visualization of individual hens looking for contagious diseases, but does not allow some natural activities such as extending wings, dust bathing and foraging.
Enhanced cages may have features, such as perches and scratching areas.
When Colorado is 100% cage-free our hens living over in Weld County, home of JBS Swift and the county where most of Colorado’s eggs come, from will still be confined to a barn, but will be able to move more freely horizontally and vertically, some will have perches. They will be able to nest, forage and roost.
The law will require 1 sq. ft. of floor space per hen if they have access to vertical space; 1.5 sq. ft. per bird if they do not.
The Humane Society of the United States obviously supported and pushed for passage of the bill.
The National Association of Egg Farmers did not.
The president of the Egg group said that accumulated mortality in cage-free systems was 11.5% due to aggressive pecking and cannibalism, but only 4.7% in conventional cages.
I wonder if my governor knew that before signing the feel-good bill.
The cage-free sector does NOT have access to the outdoors.
Free-range eggs are another story. They must have access to vegetation covered outdoor areas for at least eight hours per day.
And lastly, pasture-raised; the definitions are all over the board regarding hours and amount of space for this category.
One thing is for certain, though; as we give birds more freedom and more space, the price of eggs goes up.
The proponents like to tout a slight increase in beta-carotene and magnesium in free-range eggs, but unless eggs make up a whole lot more of someone’s diet than mine, I doubt that subtle difference will affect their health.
There certainly is not enough of a difference in nutritional values or food safety factors to make the extra cost worth it.
Speaking of cost, I suited up, put on a mask and checked out some prices for the two most popular sellers at my local grocery store. No, not Whole Foods or any other major organic outlet; just your everyday distributor of eggs.
The store’s own brand cost $1.89/doz. for conventional eggs and $2.79 for cage-free.
A major national brand for eggs sold conventional for $3.19/doz. conventional and $3.99 for cage-free.
So basically 25-50% higher for cage-free.
By the way, at this store, free-range eggs sold for $5.99 and pasture-raised by the Happy Egg Company sold for $6.99.
Estimates are that this will cost the Colorado egg industry, with 5.5 million layers in conventional cages, $165 million, or $30 per bird.
I believe strongly in freedom of choice. I usually choose not to buy organic or the “good feeling” labels. Colorado has taken that choice away from me.
But most importantly, Colorado has taken that choice away from the 30-40% of Americans who are food insecure because of cost.
More hens will die in cage-free, so you cannot simply say it is a humane-handling issue.
More people will not be able to afford eggs, a perfectly good source of nutrition with few calories.
What will they go after next; veal, feedlots for cattle, broiler growout housing and hog confinement barns?
I mentioned other bird labels at the start of this diatribe.
The one I hate the most on a package of chicken breasts is “Raised Cage-Free, No Hormones Added”.
That is one I call misleading. The American public has no clue as to what the broiler industry can and cannot do, and these “claims” only confuse them even more.
The one that caused me the most angst and trips to the Secretary’ of Agricutlure's office was “Raised without Antibiotics Ever” when, in fact, the eggs were injected with antibiotics just before hatching to have antibiotics on board for the little chicks and then fed ionophores which are classified as antibiotics by the Food & Drug Administration.
The dude in the labeling division that approved this label transferred out very shortly after I shut down a multi-million dollar campaign promoting the label.
We were petitioned twice to hold public hearings on the “All Natural” label. I punted on those requests.
If the labeling division had not fallen under my watch, I might have hung around awhile longer and kept stirring the pot.
I hate labels.