With the start of a new year comes the usual slew of feel-better resolutions, but if you are committed to altering your shopping habits for better health, or to create a better and more sustainable world, one of your first considerations should be the egg aisle. There is a big difference between standard eggs and organic, free range eggs – not only for your health, but for the health of our environment as well. Picking out eggs might seem daunting given the overwhelming variety available at most grocery stores, but there’s really only one rule: ignore the confusing labeling and do your research before hitting the grocery store, so you can rest assured that you’re purchasing true free-range eggs from a farm that treats its chickens well. Once you know a little more about the various farms and brands, making the switch to more humane, better tasting eggs is a no-brainer.

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So why does navigating the egg market require so much digging? Most shoppers have a difficult time distinguishing between “farm fresh,” “cage free,” and “free-range,” especially since there are currently no regulations governing the use of these labels. The simple breakdown: “farm fresh” doesn’t mean a thing about how the chickens are raised, “cage free” implies that the hens are not trapped in battery cages – but they still might not spend any portion of their lives outdoors. The “free-range” label requires that chickens spend some time outdoors, though often this often means overcrowding the hens onto a single outdoor concrete slab.

Amidst all this clucking, The Happy Egg Co. stands out to many selective shoppers for being the first commercial egg producer in the U.S. to be granted certification from the American Humane Association. Their hens are 100 percent true free-range, and each animal is provided with 21.8 square feet of space and 8-9 hours outside each day. “The girls,” as the brand lovingly refers to them, enjoy a mild climate on their Ozark Woodland farms, which enables them to dig for tasty treats year round. In addition to doing the hens good, the freedom to roam is also attributed to yielding tastier, brighter-orange egg yolks since healthy, outdoor birds tend to have a more balanced diet with more carotenoids (natural pigments found in a variety of plants).

Related: General Mills announces plans to use only cage-free eggs

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In 2015, California saw Prop 2 – the Prevention of Farm Cruelty Act – go into effect. In addition to prohibiting the use of battery cages, the law mandates that egg-laying hens have sufficient room to turn around, stand up, lie down, and fully extend their wings. To celebrate this step forward, the Happy Egg Co. launched the promotion of “Hendependence” which they describe as “giving hens the freedom to enjoy happier lives.”

However it’s important to remember that food production on a mass scale always yields some unpleasant realities. In 2010 animal rights group, VIVA! (Vegetarians International Voice for Animals) filmed an undercover video at one of The Happy Egg Co.’s Scotland farms that painted a less-than-happy picture of hen welfare. Egg shoppers concerned with animal welfare may also be surprised to learn that The Happy Egg Co. sends their “girls” to be “humanely processed” (aka slaughtered) for human consumption at the age of 76 weeks -19 months – which means that they enjoy their happy albeit short lives for a little more than a year. Chickens living in captivity can live as long as 20 years (8-15 years is the average).

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Inhabitat raised these concerns to The Happy Egg Co. and the company’s Chief Marketing Officer Jenni Danbi provided us with the following statement:

Six years ago, Vegetarians International Voice for Animals (VIVA!) discovered an isolated incident on one of our farms in the UK that shocked and saddened us. The business immediately took a number of steps to ensure nothing similar would ever happen again. The farm in question was immediately suspended from production and was never reinstated as a Happy Egg Company farm. We completely overhauled our own inspection process, introducing even stricter guidelines. In addition to our regular inspections by the leading independent animal welfare group RSPCA and the government agency DEFRA, we encourage and welcome unannounced site inspections. Since the incident we have been recognized by the international animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming through their ‘Good Egg Awards’ in both 2011 and 2012. We believe these awards are a testament to how much we care about looking after our hens and ensuring we’re providing the best care and environment for them.

As an aside, it’s also important to remember that this incident occurred prior to the Happy Egg Co. launching in the U.S. in 2012. From day one, we’ve set up the highest specification standards possible – knowing and learning from past experiences and constantly seeking for a better, more humane environment for our girls. In the U.S. we have a Farm Services Manager who is on the farms working with the farmers every single day, ensuring that the happy egg co. rigorous standards are being followed. We also wanted to share that we have a fruitful partnership with UC Davis, specifically with their Pasture Poultry Farm, where we work with them to research and gain insight on how to further engage the hens so that they can live happier, healthier lives.

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Consumers concerned about GMOs should know that the Happy Egg company feeds its chickens mainly GMO soy and corn products. While The Happy Egg Co. began distribution of their organic line of eggs in 2015, the majority of their production currently does not receive this label. To gain a better understanding of the situation, we reached out to Ms. Danbi who said:

“We serve our hens a specially formulated recipe of corn and soy mixed with vitamins and minerals that provide the best nutrition for healthy hens and great eggs. The hens also benefit from complementing their nutritional intake with a pasture foraged diet. Currently, we do not have a secure, sustainable source of GMO-free grain or soy in the quality and quantity that we require. However, we are constantly reviewing our vendors as we look for the best to provide to our Girls.”

We laud The Happy Egg Co. for trying and succeeding to make mass egg production a more humane process. Any production of food on a mass scale is going to involve compromises and cost-cutting to create efficiencies, and yet The Happy Egg Co. has still managed to bring free range chicken eggs into international supermarket chains like Safeways and Raileys, at a manageable price point for average consumers. This is definitely a step up from your average factory-farmed, battery-cage eggs. Even more importantly, this new option in the egg market raises awareness and provokes new questions and debate on what “humane farming” actually means. And it’s a conversation we should be having.

Regardless of whether the chicken or the egg came first, one thing is for certain: happy chickens produce better eggs. And whether you’re an egg-lover, an animal rights activist, or a restaurant dedicated to making casual dining more humane, the numbers are in: the demand for free-range eggs is growing. Your job, after recognizing that farms have varying definitions of the term “free-range,” is to seek out eggs from a business whose visions for humane farming resonate with your own.

+ The Happy Egg Co.

Images via The Happy Egg Co.