Family Farm. Old Fashioned. Gathered by hand. What images do these phrases convey? A small, quaint little farm complete with 1880s farmhouse, red barn, silo, and a big tree in front yard with a tire swing holding a cute little girl with pigtails? How about ten 50 ft. by 300 foot long buildings each holding 10-20,000 laying hens pecking around at manure encrusted dirt and each other? How about dozens of low-wage brown-skinned workers "hand gathering" the eggs? Honestly (and that is what we are about here), the preponderance of feel-good words on egg cartons has to be some of the most flagrant violations of the concept of truth in advertising (which is only a concept since it is not enforced). As egg producers ourselves, we get a lot of cartons recycled back to us from other companies (we only use the recycled cartons for CSA sales). We chuckle whenever we are sorting cartons at the cr*p that is in print on these things. Here is some of the B.S. gleaned from those cartons and the companies websites:
Words and catchy phrases gleaned from Judy's Family Farm (owned by Petaluma Farms, which also owns Rock Island, Gold Circle Farms, and Uncle Eddie's brands) include: "old-fashioned way", "quality control" (like any egg producer would not be concerned about quality), "we care about our hens", "same as my great grandfather" (he had the football field size barns, conveyor belt feeders, and automatic waterers a hundred years ago?), "free to roam" (inside barns with thousands of other chickens pecking at them), "fresh and pure water" (who would give their hens contaminated water??). Now who is Judy anyways and why does her website not show a single picture of the farm nor the chickens?? If her farm is a "family farm", then what is a corporate farm? Couldn't you call Archer Daniels Midland (ADM) a family farm just because they have a descendant or two on staff?
From Chino Valley Ranchers (which also owns brands Veg-A-Fed, Mothers Free Range, and private labels for companies such as Trader Joe's) words and phrases include: "chickens healthy, happy, and stress-free (how do they measure this?), "100% pure" (what does this mean, exactly?), "community houses" (does 20,000 birds in a house constitute a community or chaos?), "like back home on the farm" (what?!?), "never use hormones" (this is the biggest B.S. of all since hormones are NOT ALLOWED IN EGG PRODUCING CHICKENS, so please companies, stop saying hormone free when you can't use them anyways!), "clean, natural water" (again, who is going to give their hens dirty, unnatural water?), "vegetarian diet" (don't get me started, hens are omnivores and like to eat bugs, worms, rodents, lizards, etc. This claim basically means the chickens are indoors their whole life where they don't have access to things found on pasture), "air fresh & clean" (these ranches are East of L.A., need I say more?), "hens eat, exercise, and socialize to their health's contents", "hand packed" (can robots pack eggs?), "farm fresh" (can 2 weeks old before they show up at the grocery store be considered fresh, moreover, can an egg factory be called a farm?). On their website is only one single picture of a few of their hundreds of thousands of chickens and not a single picture of one of their multiple "farms". Who are these "ranchers" and why don't they have names or faces?
The behemoth NuCal Foods (which mostly private labels for brands such as Horizon Organic, Clover Stornetta, and Egg Lands Best, but also owns brands Cage Free, California's Finest Eggs, Becky brand (arrgh, my name!), Santa Rosa Egg Farms, Nulaid, Crack a Smile, and others) has a smattering of words & phrases that include: "we have created an environment for our hens that protects them from the elements, disease, and predators..." (I'm sorry, but the elements of California? Really, our Mediterranean climate can hardly be called elements. And disease comes from crowded conditions and contact with feces, so keeping thousands in cages or in large barns is the opposite of disease control), "best tasting egg in America" (who were the chef judges you paid to say that?), "free-roaming" (meaning not in cages but still with 20-30,000 birds in a 1/3 acre size building), "spacious pens" (yes they are big, but when there are that many birds in a building, you could hardly call is spacious, much less a pen), "lead the industry in advanced animal husbandry practices" (what we do is advanced animal husbandry, allowing animals to enjoy their natural instincts, forage for their own food, eat a diversified diet, and live OUTSIDE).
To top it all off, the pictures most of these egg brands display are always of dancing chickens, frolicking outside or of little girls hand feeding a few hens. I have seen only one company actually show a picture on the label of the actual gigantic barns that their chickens live in. The irony in that case is the picture could hardly be called appealing and might be too truthful. Even though they have lush pastures surrounding those barns, they never let the chickens out.
So in our efforts to be truthful and as transparent as possible, our new egg cartons will simply mention the two practices that we uphold, "pasture-raised" and "certified organic". We will use no adjectives or meaningless phrases and the cartoon drawing of chickens on the label is from an actual photo taken on our farm. We will print the website on the cartons where customers can go and find more information, including lots of pictures, detailed descriptions of our practices, and eventually some short video clips. We hope the simple truth and transparency will attract customers and encourage others to insist on that level of transparency from other producers. If egg producers and other livestock producers don't get busy educating customers about the realities of their production systems and be truthful about it, then more restrictive regulations will be coming down the pipeline, ones that ultimately could hurt us all. But that discussion is for another post....