Sunday, August 14, 2011

Cracking the code of egg carton labels, Part 2

This time I just want to talk about one egg carton label and what it means: "Vegetarian Diet." According to the Humane Society, "vegetarian diet," in the egg industry, means "These birds' feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions."

OK, let's set aside for the moment the reference to living conditions (which is vague in the extreme). What strikes me about "vegetarian diet" is that the marketers are counting on the average consumer to be unaware that chickens are actually omnivorous. We see our birds foraging all day long, eating all manner of worms, bugs, and grubs; they go fairly nuts during the summer when, for about a week, the carpenter ants are flying. It's quite entertaining to watch the birds run around, leaping into the air to snatch the large and apparently delectable ants.

We've even seen the chickens catch small frogs, lizards, mice, and (believe it or not) snakes. The first time I saw a hen with a snake I wouldn't have believed it. From across the yard, the hen was racing around, with 10 or so hens in hot pursuit. I could see the lead hen had something hanging from her beak but I couldn't see what it was, so I went to see what was going on. She had a garter snake, and about 16" of the snake was visible. With an impressive finishing kick, the hen got far enough ahead of the other birds and stopped abruptly. Tilting her head back in a whiplash-like motion, she swallowed the snake in one go. I swear I'm not making this up. I remember thinking, I wonder if the snake was dead when the hen swallowed it?

Anyway, the point is, if a laying hen is eating a "vegetarian diet," by definition she is not foraging any of her food. True, I think it's great if the hens' feed doesn't contain any animal byproducts; I just happen to also believe that hens are happier, healthier, and lay better-tasting and healthier eggs when they have access to the naturally-balanced range of foods they thrive on.

I was planning two posts regarding egg carton labels, but I will be doing at least one more, as I have been getting a lot of questions about this lately. Please post your comments and questions too; the label definitions and parameters periodically change, and I'll do what I can to help clarify them.

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