Ok, now starts the harder, even more complicated part. How are you going to find out where your food comes from and how it's produced? Unfortunately, the marketing strategies of the profit driven corporate world make it as difficult as possible for you to make informed choices. I know I recommend the documentary Food Inc. about fifteen million times in this blog, but it really does do a great job in illustrating this point. See this clip for more information.
Since I only know egg farming first hand, I'll use it as my example case. Let's say you're aware of the "living" conditions of hens trapped in battery cages for the vast majority of eggs produced in the country for supermarket sale or consumption in restaurants or use in baked goods. If you aren't, here's a picture of such hens and how they will spend their entire lives.
If you DON'T consider this a problem, no need to read more. Any egg brand will do, so no need to worry about labeling. But let's assume you've decided that this is an unacceptable life for a bird. Looking at the supermarket eggs you're happy to see you can now find eggs labeled "cage free." Well this is indeed good news, right? It conjures up images of chickens roaming pastures of green grass and enjoying little chicken lives just like on granny's farm. The reality is that cage free means ONLY that. Taken from the Humane Society literature:
"Cage-free hens are spared several cruelties that are inherent to battery cage systems. But it would nevertheless be a mistake to consider cage-free facilities to necessarily be "cruelty-free." Here are some of the more typical sources of animal suffering associated with cage-free egg production:
- Cage-free farms typically buy their hens from the same hatcheries that supply battery-cage farms. These hatcheries kill the male chicks upon hatching—more than 200 million each year in the United States alone.
- Most cage-free hens have part of their beaks burned off, a painful mutilation.
- Hens are typically slaughtered at less than two years old, far less than half their normal lifespan. They are often transported long distances to slaughter plants with no food or water.
- While the vast majority of the battery and cage-free egg industry no longer uses starvation to force molt the birds, there are battery and cage-free producers alike who still use this practice."
Ok, so let's say you want to go all the way with cruelty free eggs. You want your eggs coming only from chickens raised in that classic pastoral setting. Like say, from Cluck-n-Neigh. In that case, you are probably going to have to go a specialty grocery such as Whole Foods just to pick up a dozen eggs, which cost up to $5.99 a dozen when I last looked. It seems like highway robbery but I can tell you from experience it costs farmers (like me) who have the highest of animal welfare standards much much more to produce a dozen eggs than by factory farming methods. When you factor the long-term costs of eating 5.99 worth of cheap processed foods however (environmental costs, animal/worker abuse, obesity, heat disease, Type 2 diabetes just to name a few), 5.99 is a bargain.
No one can ever be 100% cruelty free in their eating, no matter how diligent they are. I'm fond of saying "all I can do is all I can do." Decide on what's right for you, educate yourself and recognize that billions of dollars are spent on advertising and using vague wording (such as "cage free" or "all natural") to entice you into purchasing their items with the mistaken assumption that the animals are treated humanely. Learn what the labels actually mean, and shop according to your standards. If ever you are curious about what some of the more common labels really mean, go to greenerchoices.org.
By the way, if animal welfare is your biggest concern, "Certified Humane" labels trump "Organic" any day in my (never) humble opinion.