The labels always seem so proud…
You know, the ones that boldly declare that the eggs sitting cozily inside their carton are from chickens fed an “all-natural vegetarian” diet.
At first glance, that sounds pretty good, right? I mean, it’s always good to pay attention to labels–especially with all the “iffy” stuff that takes place in food production these days.
But when I stroll down the egg aisle at my local health food store, those particular labels always make me shake my head…
‘Cause if you’ve ever watched a chicken scratch and peck around your yard, then you know that chickens are most definitely NOT vegetarians by nature…
A free-range chicken generally makes a sport of out hunting down and happily devouring any sort of moving object it can find–including moths, grasshoppers, grubs, larvae, worms, and even the occasional mouse or frog. It’s a great way to pass time and an important source of protein for their diet.
I have a special admiration for people such as Harvey Ussery, who raise insects as protein sources for their flock. I read about his method of raising soldier grubs for his flock’s main protein source in his book, The Small Scale Poultry Flock.(affiliate link). I’m still not sure if I have a strong enough stomach to do it myself, but I do think it’s an awesome idea. 😉
So if chickens are most assuredly omnivores by nature, when did all this buzz over “vegetarian chickens” start?
The Story Behind the Label
It all began when folks became aware that many animals raised in commercial operations were being fed processed feeds containing animal-byproducts as a source of protein.
Now at first glance, that doesn’t sound too bad. But when you understand just what those animal by-products are, that’s when things get gross.
The “animal by-products” that pop up in ingredient lists in various animal feeds can include blood, same-species meat, feathers, rendered road kill, and euthanized dogs and cats (1).
Not only does that seriously offend my common sense, but it was also discovered that feeding certain parts of cows back to cows can result in bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka “Mad Cow Disease (2).” And that’s a very big problem. Cows weren’t made to eat other cows. Or dogs and cats for that matter. Cows were made to eat grass.
So laws started to change and producers and consumers alike started watching more closely what animals were eating. And if most people had to choose, eggs from chickens fed a vegetarian diet sound much better than eggs from chickens fed slaughterhouse waste (or worse).
And I don’t blame them. But…
What’s Really “Natural”?
A carton of eggs labeled “vegetarian” means that the chicken was fed a diet free of animal by-products. In addition, all USDA Certified Organic eggs must come from chickens fed a completely vegetarian diet consisting of certified organic grains (3).
That sounds fine and dandy until you realize that a chicken in its natural environment is NOT going to be vegetarian and that “vegetarian” eggs probably come from chickens that are not allowed to free-range. By default, the diet of a honest-to-goodness “free-range” chicken will most definitely include creepy-crawlies of all kinds.
So while it’s nice to know that commercially-raised chickens fed a vegetarian diet aren’t eating rendered dogs and cats for lunch, that label doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a whole lot better off than their other commercially-raised buddies. And I personally think that chickens need meat bits and insects in their diet if we are sticking with the “natural” way of doing things.
The world of egg labeling is pretty sketchy and not always what it seems… For example, the label “cage-free” sounds pretty good, until you realize that, by law, all that has to mean is that they can wander around in a crowded chicken house. It doesn’t mean they necessarily have access to the outside or are running around in lush green pastures eating grasshoppers.
If you want to dig deeper into the confusing world of egg labels, check out this post from The Rising Spoon.
So What’s an Egg-Lover to Do?
Don’t spend the extra $$ for those “vegetarian” eggs–try these options instead:
1. Raise Your Own Chickens.
Of course, this is my favorite solution–and backyard chicken keeping is exploding all over the country. I feed my chickens a custom mixed ration that is GMO-free (get the recipe in my Natural Homestead ebook!) and allow them to run around and eat grass, weeds, bugs, worms, and whatever else to their heart’s content. They also get occasional meat scraps and fat bits, which they definitely enjoy. (However, I don’t feed them chicken meat–only beef, pork, or fish.)
2. Buy Eggs from a Friend or Farmer
If you can’t have your own chickens, there’s a good chance you have a friend who does keep a flock of happy hens. If your friends haven’t jumped onto the chicken bandwagon yet, seek out families or farmers selling eggs at your local farmer’s markets. And reputable farmers will be more than happy to chat with you about how their chickens are raised and what they are fed.
3. Look for Pastured Eggs
If you aren’t having any luck finding local chicken producers, look for eggs that say “pastured” on the label. Now as we know, labels don’t always mean what they say and they aren’t any governing regulations for the term “pastured” yet. But if the the company is reputable, pastured eggs usually come from birds allowed to graze on grass and whatever bugs might be hanging out in that grass. And that’s a good thing.
In summary? Cows are herbivores and should be vegetarians, but chickens are omnivores and greatly delight in crunchy bugs. So let ’em. 😉
Note: This post is not a commentary on human vegetarian diets, only chicken vegetarian diets. I have no desire to start that war. 😉
UPDATE: My buddy Justin Rhodes from the Permaculture Chickens Course did a YouTube video inspired by this post! Check it out—>