So what we are really talking about here is USDA labeling and how large growers have gotten very generic terms added to the regulations to basically fool consumers into buying a product by using misleading terms to indicate that has been raised in one manner when it has not. This is a growing trend and is referred to as “Greenwashing”.
So let’s dive into the world of egg labels
No Labeling on Carton
If you don’t see any mention at all of the animal’s lifestyle on the package, you can be sure the animal was caged throughout its life. Terms like “fresh” and “real” may be on the carton but these terms are not regulated and have no official meaning.
“Caged” chickens only have 67 square inches of cage space, which is less space than a single sheet of letter-sized paper! In general, caged animals spend their entire lives with no room to turn around or spread their wings, let alone engage in vital natural behaviors like nesting or dust bathing.
According to the USDA, cage-free eggs come from hens that are “housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” Even though this sounds a lot better than confining a chicken to a cage, note that this regulation makes no mention of a space requirement. This means that lots of chickens can be stuffed into a barn and still be considered cage-free. The term also does not mean they were given access to the outdoors. This is not the sunshine and pasture image the term “cage-free” conjures up!
The USDA defines free range eggs as basically the same as cage-free eggs, with the exception that free range hens have access to the outdoors. Note that this doesn’t mean they’re able to roam completely free and there are no requirements regarding the size of the outdoor area, the condition, or even how long or often the animal is outside. It could just be a screened-in porch that they have access to for a few minutes. Once again the reality of the chickens’ lives is not what you think of when the term “Free-Range” is used.
There is not a legal definition of the term “Pasture-Raised.” Pretty much anyone can claim to produce “pasture-raised” and suffer no consequences for misinformation. Knowing exactly what that means for the poultry products that you purchase is where it benefits a consumer to know their farmer and what their farmer’s practices are.
Sweet Gum Farm (Pasture Raised)
To Sweet Gum Farm Pastured Poultry means that the birds live out on pasture starting around 3 to 4 weeks of age in mobile coops or, as the coops are also known, chicken tractors. These chicken tractors are set out on pasture and moved on a regular schedule to give them fresh grass. To help protect them against predators we “day range” them, which means we secure them in the tractor at dusk, letting them out again in the morning. This protects them from nocturnal predators such as owls, raccoons, possums, skunks, and coyotes. With the chickens being on pasture all of the time this allows them to consume grasses, bugs, worms and anything else they can find that strikes their fancy, meaning they are consuming what their instincts are telling them is good for them. However, proper nutrition for chickens can’t be met with just grass and bugs; to make sure all of their nutritional requirements are met we also provide them with a non-GMO feed, along with grit to ensure proper digestion.
In order to protect the chickens while they are day ranging in the pasture, we surround their area with a movable electrified poultry netting. This keeps dogs and other daytime predators from getting to the chickens. Every time we move the chicken tractor, we also move the electrified netting. The chickens realize that moving their tractor means they are getting fresh grass–which also means more bugs and new spots to dig for dirt baths, much to their excitement–so they enjoy being moved. Usually we have mowed the pasture area they are being moved to and they love scratching in the fallen hay for any goodies hidden underneath so they come running out of their chicken tractor to start investigating the fresh ground.
Each length of poultry netting is 164 feet long. Our flock of layers has three lengths of netting connected into one long fence line so their fencing is 492 feet long. This translates into a lot of area for them to explore.
Not only are pasture-raised animals happier with more space to roam, but they are also healthier, which translates into important health benefits. By having more area they are not forced to live in their waste. They excrete waste while they are out foraging. This and rotating them among the pasture areas combine to keep them healthier.
Studies have found that pasture-raised eggs contain twice the amount of omega-3 fatty acids than regular eggs (1). As for meat, research has shown pastured chickens have greater nutritional quality (2).
This is important because non-pastured chickens fed a diet of corn and soy have a high omega-6 fatty acid ratio which is pro-inflammatory for them (and for us when consumed). Omega-3, on the other hand, is anti-inflammatory and reduces the risk of heart attacks (3).
More Essential Vitamins
Specifically, pasture-raised eggs contain twice as much vitamin E and 38 percent more vitamin A than their caged counterparts (4).
Where To Find Pasture-Raised Eggs
At a local farmers market, where you are supporting local farmers as well as also lowering your carbon footprint by choosing locally-sourced products. Make sure to talk to the farmer and ask any questions you might have. Now it’s time for some self-advertising: you can order them from us on our website or come get some from us at the farmers market we attend.
|Conventional Chicken = grow houses, antibiotics & vaccines, gmo/soy feed|
Organic Chicken = grow houses, antibiotics & vaccines, organic feed
Free Range Chicken = grow houses with a door, antibiotics & vaccines, any feed
Pasture Raised = no legal definition (unregulated living conditions, may include antibiotics, vaccines, gmo/soy feed)
Sweet Gum Farm Chicken = 24/7 outside, NO antibiotics, NO vaccines, foraging for bugs, grubs, seeds & worms + supplemental non-gmo feed