How Does Your Chicken Cross the Road?
The "why" is easy: We love to brunch. We love our omelettes rich, our yolks runny. But it's the "how" that's truly puzzling. We’ve become accustomed to the new carton slogans: cage-free, organic, free-range, pasture-raised. They evoke images of grassy plains and frolicking animals; but what do they mean? Amidst these vague descriptors and seemingly innocuous imagery, understanding how a chicken is raised is confusing—and often so on purpose.
Case in point: Two egg producers were recently sued for their misleading marketing claims about the welfare of their chickens—portraits of roaming chickens and tales of "wide-open spaces," when in reality the hens are crammed into sheds with no access to the outdoors. But even before this public lawsuit, the truth was plain: Pasture-raised is the real cage-free. Only most people don't know it yet.
Pasture-raised, organic eggs are sought after by animal activists and food-lovers alike. Advocates believe that the birds' lifestyle and motley diet result in eggs with superior texture, flavor, and nutritional content. Feed is USDA certified organic to provide optimal nourishment. Coops are moved around regularly so that the birds can forage on fresh grass. These farming practices lead to eggs naturally higher in vitamin B, vitamin C, and omega 3; and a third lower in cholesterol. To top it off, the whites tend to be fluffier and the yolks richer. That’s some serious sunny side up excellence.
Cage-free eggs, however, are a totally different story. Hens can be raised in a warehouse of up to 100,000 per shed. They usually live among their own excrement and never breathe fresh air or chomp on fresh grass. Their feed may be non-organic, smothered in pesticides, and consist of blood-meal and other types of waste. Clearly, two terms that sound of similar caliber, cage-free and pasture-raised, could not be more different.
When it comes to the better choice for our health and the environment, the answer is clear. But when it comes to producing and selling eggs, conventional and so-called cage-free farms have thrived, because they're able to provide eggs at a lower cost since they require less farmworkers, less land, and spend less on feed. Naturally, pasture-raised organic eggs are more expensive to produce, requiring more land and farmworkers which thin the profit margin and inflate the price point. Faced with ambiguous information and confusing carton slogans, it’s nearly impossible for consumers to evaluate pasture-raised organic eggs against their less-wholesome counterparts.
But Vital Farms is seeking to change that. Carried in every Whole Foods across the country, Vital Farms' supply chain is made up of several independent, family-owned farms across the U.S., all of which meet Vital Farms' high standards for raising chickens. In exchange, the small farms have access to an instant distribution stream, marketing materials, and brand-recognition—something many small farms don't have the bandwidth to tackle. This allows farmers stick to doing what they love: raising happy, healthy chickens.
Vital Farms is seeking to switch more farms over from conventional to pasture-raised organic; and they need your help. It costs approximately $25 per chicken to bring one over from the dark side. Starting today, Vital Farms is seeking to raise $80,000 to convert an entire conventional chicken farm to pasture-raised.
So, now we know the difference between pasture-raised eggs and cage-free. But, can a new term change how we think about and purchase our eggs? I think: yes. A few years ago, cage-free was not an option found at the grocery store. But we voted with our forks and forced the egg industry to meet our demands. Will this occur once more when the public learns the truth about pasture-raised organic eggs? It's only a matter of time.