Picture an egg. Smooth, unblemished shell protecting a wobbly albumen and bright, sunny yolk. Maybe the shell is brown, perhaps a glossy eggshell white. An array of a dozen lined up neatly in a carton waiting in the chilled cases of your supermarket. How do you find the best eggs? They’re all graded A or AA, surely they’ve passed with flying colors. Does the price difference between the “vegetarian fed” “cage free” egg and the just plain egg reflect quality? Do those statements tell anything about the life of the real animal making this perfect egg?
Eggs are a difficult thing to shop for. Beyond a golden yolk from a “natural diet”, the consumer doesn’t expect to notice a difference (Lutz 2012). It is a trust exercise to drop more money on eggs with appealing labeling- we trust in our understanding of the label’s meaning and, more nebulously, in the long-term benefits these better eggs guarantee us. If you seek out eggs you believe to be humanely produced, and eat those eggs, writes Lutz, there is no cost to you for being wrong. There’s an abstract moral cost, but you aren’t going to receive a letter from the USDA at year’s end reviewing your egg consumption.
Consumers survey well in response to humane, responsibly raised products. Who’s really going to say “No” when directly asked if hens should get sunlight and space to roam around, even if they genuinely don’t care. It’s a different story when you’re alone, staring at the prices on the shelf. Estimates for giving hens a little room to stretch out their wings in cramped battery cages predict a $2 carton of eggs would raise to $2.22, by nearly a quarter, at lowest estimate. To shift to a cage free system would bring that price up to $2.81. Studies like Tonsor and Wolf (2010) have confirmed willingness to vote for tighter regulations on egg production systems is significantly lower when voters know it can effect their grocery costs. Even when regulation passes, the ability of producers to pass on the costs of higher welfare standards isn’t guaranteed. Instead of accepting an increase in your spending on eggs, you could opt to purchase other items. Each protein industry, pork, beef, chicken, eggs scramble to make sure that regulation effects the others as well, keeping food prices, if not stable, at least stable in relationship to each-other.
The push and pull of labeling starts because each new word on a label not only informs about that item, it casts the other goods as lacking. (Blandford) “Cage free” eggs make you consider that the other eggs are produced in cages. Their perceived value goes down. Labels might even describe common practices, like hopefully all new cars are “Free of Bees”, but as soon as Ford starts mentioning that in their ad copy, every other car is a potentially buzzing hazard. This ridiculous escalation, as well as use of terms with similar meanings but no certification behind them like “natural” can make it useful to have a third party, such as the government, define terms used(Lusk 2012). It’s still a sea of terms. Is “cage free” different from “free range”? What’s free roaming, that sounds like something to sell phone plans?
Who can blame you for the confusion? Even egg grades, a USDA mandate on all cartons, are taken on an assumed definition. I had believed egg grades referred to something about egg size, despite the presence of additional labels such as JUMBO or EXTRA-LARGE, but what is graded is the gooiness of the egg-white. Labels like “minimally processed” mean one thing to the regulating body and another to a consumer. Even when labels have a mutually understood meaning, like “Grass Fed” they rapidly take on a larger meaning. While working at a butcher shop, I was asked many times if our pork was grass-fed. A grass fed pig would be a miserable, scrawny thing, as pigs don’t have the special stomachs to digest grass. I mention this not to discuss the lack of zoological knowledge but because “grass fed” and other labels like it because a buzzword quickly, seen as encompassing much more than just the diet of the animal. A grocery trip would be a several hour excursion if you pulled out your phone to look up every labelling term, assuming you could easily find the definition that was being used for that particular item.
Locally produced food has less “food miles” to your table. Local produce is often popularly defined as originating within 200 miles of its retail location. Locally produced, according to the USDA is any egg laid within 400 miles of the production facility, or within the state. (The state of California has a vertical length of over 700 miles). Eggs local to Richmond could come from outside Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburg, Columbus, Charleston, Charlotte, or from a farm actually in Virginia. State regulations can add specificity, but this is a far cry from a backyard chicken coop, or even picking up eggs from a farm-stand, just in terms of the miles your egg has traveled. Your eggs have probably seen more of this country than you.
Labeling barely scratches the surface of actual moral and health issues with eggs. Omega-3 rich diets and cage free habitats don’t tell us anything about other common practices, like beak trimming and culling infant male hatchlings in egg production facilities. Egg labeling is confusing and only gives us a few issues to focus on, possibly even things producers were doing anyway like with the “Bee Free” Ford I jokingly proposed.
Coleman, J. (1999). Industry & trade summary eggs No. 3268). Washington DC: OFFICE OF INDUSTRIES U.S. International Trade Commission.
Lusk, J. (2012). Consumer information and labeling. In W. Armbruster, & R. Knutson (Eds.), US programs affecting food and agricultural marketing (1st ed., pp. 349-373). New York: Springer.
Rahn, A.P. (2002). “An economic perspective on the United Egg Producers’ Animal Husbandry Guidelines for U.S. Egg Laying Flocks”. Revised version (November 26) of a paper prepared for a meeting of the Midwest Poultry Federation Convention, St. Paul, MN. March 21.
Sumner, D., W.A. Matthews, J.A. Mench, and J.T. Rosen-Molina (2010). “The economics of regulations on hen housing in California”. Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics 42(3): 429-438.
Tonsor, G.T. and C.A. Wolf (2010). “Drivers of resident support for animal care oriented ballot initiatives”. Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics 42: 419-428.
Blandford, H (2012) Humane Treatment of Farm Animals.In W. Armbruster, & R. Knutson (Eds.), US programs affecting food and agricultural marketing (1st ed., pp. 471-504). New York: Springer.