Labeling for Savvy Consumers: Poultry and Egg Edition

rachelgaffney_ColinCountyFM_02_Articleby Jessica L. Moskowitz

As farmers markets continue to grow rapidly in number and popularity, vendors’ labeling and marketing materials have never been more important. Your messaging and word choices impact not only your bottom line, but the relationships and trust you build with customers and market goers.

According to the USDA, farmers markets have grown from approximately 1,755 in 1994 to 8,144 in 2013, with an impressive 3.6% jump between 2012 and 2013 alone. More markets also means more eco-conscious and ethical consumers with increased knowledge of farming practices and terminology. Market research has also shown that consumers are concerned about the personal health implications, environmental impact, and welfare of our country’s farm animals. More and more customers understand the increased costs of implementing sustainable, humane practices, and many will happily pay for them. While this is good news for sustainable farming, increased attention to farm practices poses new challenges in the marketplace: many large-scale egg and poultry producers have been taking advantage of consumers’ willingness to pay extra.

What does this mean for market managers and small farmers? It means keeping abreast of what terms are being widely used as well the associated stigmas. As consumers learn more about big agriculture through films like Food, Inc., and farm-to-table cheerleaders like Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin, the more they begin to question terms that imply one thing, but mean another.

Terms used to describe poultry and egg production are some of the worst offenders. The USDA has definitions for many of these terms and, according to the agency, animal-raising claims must be “truthful and not misleading.” Turns out, some of these labels are not, pun intended, all they’re cracked up to be. Being prepared to explain how your products go beyond the labeling associated with Big Ag practices is key. Let’s break it down:

Cage-Free
USDA Definition: A Cage-free label indicates that the flock is able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area (typically a barn or poultry house) with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.

The Perception: Cage-free does NOT mean the hens have access to the outdoors. While, cage-free birds are able to engage in some natural behaviors, such as nesting and stretching their wings, controversial practices such as debeaking are still allowed. Consumers have developed a growing skepticism of this term. Many find it to be deceptive—falsely indicating that hens are able to live a spacious, natural life. It’s also a term more frequently associated with eggs and poultry purchased from the grocery store originating from large, industrial farms. 

Free-Range or Free-Roaming
USDA Definition: A free-range or free-roaming label indicates that the hens are provided shelter with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle.

cage free eggs

Image: Untitled by vis-a-v.

The Perception: While consumers conjure images of happy chickens roaming freely through fields, “access” often really means a small door that the animals never take advantage of. “Access” is a key word that many factory farm brands have been known to exploit. There are no USDA requirements for the quality and

size of the outdoor access areas, or for how much time poultry spend outdoors. Many believe that free-range is no better than the cage-free label and thus not worth the added price tag. Michael Pollan and Food Inc. broke the bubble years ago that factory-farmed poultry labeled as “free-range” or “free-roaming” likely don’t ever see the light of day, let alone graze or roam in a field. It should also be noted that according to USDA, controversial practices such as debeaking and forced moulting are allowed within the free-range and free-roaming label.

Pastured or Pasture-Raised
USDA Definition: Due to the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems, the USDA has not yet developed a federal definition for such products.

The Perception: The growing use of this term has led to an understanding (and promise by the farmer) that meat and eggs labeled as pastured means the hens are raised outdoors and have the ability to eat wild plants and insects. Perceived as far more true to what the term invokes, an increasing number of consumers are supporting pastured and pasture-raised labeled products as worthy of the highest price tag and offering the most ethical, healthy, and sustainable choice. It is important to note that these terms are often confused with free-range and free-roaming (something encouraged by factory and commercial producers to justify a higher cost) and should not be used interchangeably. Because pastured hens eat a varied diet and experience daylight, studies have proven their eggs to be more nutritious including elements like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamins A, D, and E, and have less cholesterol when compared to their commercial counterparts. Many consumers now tout the taste factor as another benefit of buying truly pastured eggs and meat.
 
Certified Organic
USDA Definition: This labeling term indicates the product has been produced through approved methods where synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering are not being used. Hens must be kept un-caged with access to the outdoors, and are fed an organic, vegetarian diet free of pesticides. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

The Perception:  Again, the word “access” comes into play as the amount and quality of such access is undefined. Savvy consumers have grown weary of products labeled as organic (not just among poultry and eggs) as part of the “green washing” marketing tactic. They now place organic labeled eggs and chicken above cage-free, but below pastured due to the perceived vegetarian diet, which is thought to be unnatural and void of certain nutrients. The label doesn’t carry as much weight as it did in the past, and many consumers (especially those shopping regularly at their local farmers markets) would rather buy eggs and meat from hens allowed to graze in a pasture or field than ones fed with an organic diet.

Farmers as Educators
When you’re chatting with shoppers, developing your product packaging, and planning your signage and labeling, keep in mind what the consumer knows and expects. Be ready to explain what your labels truly mean. Not only will your word choices and explanations impact your sales and reputation, they can also make a difference. As leaders of sustainable farming, you are also educators and marketers. Together, let’s reclaim the authenticity of these terms for the collective benefit of our farmers, consumers, and communities.