From the existential anxiety-inducing question of ‘which came first, the egg or the chicken’, to ‘brown egg or white egg’, ‘medium or large’, and now to the controversial debate on free-range, free-run, and organic eggs, perhaps no other food has provoked so much confusion. But one thing you can be sure is that the first egg that ever existed would have checked all the boxes: organic, free-range, and antibiotic-free.
According to the Canadian Coalition for Farm Animals, an estimated 98% of eggs in Canada are caged, meaning that hens are kept in cramped wire battery cages where they are “unable to perform natural behaviours such as nesting, perching, dust bathing, stretching a wing or walking around”, all of which contribute to the well-being and happiness of chickens. Because of the unethical practice, consumers have been leaning more towards cage-free options: free-range, free-run, or organic eggs. But do you know the difference among all the options? And are free-range and free-run actually good?
When you think of free-range eggs, you might picture happy, carefree chickens running around a green pasture, but that’s not exactly the case. They do sometimes have access to nesting boxes and some access to the outdoors. It is important to note that housing systems for free-range eggs are not audited or third-party verified unless they are certified organic, which means that these conditions–access to nest boxes, perches or litter for dust bathing–are not actually required.
Free-Run Eggs are also referred to as ‘barn eggs’. Free-range chickens are kept in open barns that don’t necessarily provide more space to move around-similar to caged chickens, just without the cage. They sometimes have access to nesting boxes, perches or litter for dust bathing, but none of these conditions are required. Further, these chickens have no access to the outdoors.
Organic eggs are the best option when it comes to egg certifications along with SPCA Certified. With the development of Canada’s National Organic Standard, the Canadian organic industry has been growing at a healthy rate. The standards for animals cover feed, transport and handling, health care, living conditions, stocking rates, etc. The animals are required to be provided access to “the outdoors, shade, rotational pasture, exercise areas, fresh air and natural daylight suitable to the species, the stage of production, the climate and environment, and opportunity to express normal patterns of behaviour.” This means the organic eggs you buy are laid by healthy hens in living conditions inspected and certified by a third party.
Along with organic eggs, SPCA-Certified eggs are the only ones verified by third-party auditors in Canada. SPCA standards are known to be more stringent than the national code, as they cover “feed and water, environment, health and sanitation, management, waste management, transport and handling, slaughter, processing and euthanasia, biosecurity and reference materials.” There are also specific key components for chickens that include sufficient space to move freely, preen, stretch, and flap wings; freedom from battery cages; provision of nest boxes, perches, and dust bathing areas; and prohibition of stressful forced moulting practices.
Health Benefits of Organic and SPCA-Certified Eggs
Both organically raised and SPCA-approved hens are not given antibiotics, and are required to be provided fresh water and high-quality feeds that ultimately affect the nutrient content of their eggs. While all farms differ in terms of organic feed, most farms use feed that is GMO-free, vegetarian, and without animal byproducts. In a nutrient sampling test, an organic brand of eggs scored highest in terms of nutritional content, including vitamin D, vitamin E, and a healthier ratio of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats.
Eggs have been a staple of the human diet for millennia, as early as 7500 BCE. And for millennia, they checked all the boxes: free-range, organic, and antibiotic-free. There shouldn’t be any confusion or debate when it comes to choosing eggs. Organic eggs are not only better for the hens, but also for your health.