At Clean Plates, we believe good sourcing yields better food. But did you know that “free range” hens don’t necessarily get out of the barn, or may not have a pasture outside? Or that “cage-free” hens can still be enclosed in a crowded hen house? As for “all-natural,” there are no standards for what that means. You’ve probably heard about battery cages, where hens have no space to move, and mega-farms where sick birds can contaminate well ones. So we were intrigued when we got a pitch from the happy egg co. Originating in the UK, this new-to-America company employs free-range farms that are certified humane, which means that everything from the hens’ living conditions to feed to caregivers’ expertise has been thoroughly vetted—aiming to give their hens an eggs-ellent life.
We questioned Rob Newell, Chief Marketing Officer, to see if it’s all it’s cracked up to be:
Q. Are the hens really running free on farms? How much space do they have?
A. Each farm is home to a flock of 16,000 birds. This works out to be 11 square feet per chicken, which is nearly five times larger than most standards. On the farm, the hens are free to engage in natural behaviors like perching on wooden towers and dust bathing in sand pits. Inside the barn, they have access to pecking toys to keep them engaged, and nest boxes to select from for laying eggs. The hens on our farms are tended to by family farmers: usually a farmer, his wife and several helpers, who are experts in animal stewardship.
Q. How can you produce enough eggs to supply supermarkets across America, yet not run crowded factory farms?
A. Rather than using large complexes, we select [multiple] small, family-run farms where we can provide our hens with the best care and attention at all times. [happy egg co. is expanding across America now; check the store locator here.
Q. Most major farms debeak their hens (a possibly cruel practice that removes the beak tip so that hens can’t peck each other). Does the happy egg co. debeak its hens?
A. We do not debeak our hens. When the chicks are one day old, we use an Infrared Beak Treatment (IRBT) to dull the end of the hen’s pointy beak. Whether we have six or 100 hens, we need to protect all our hens from being pecked. There is a reason we have sayings such as “pecking order” and “henpecked”; it’s a natural characteristic of hens. [Read more about IRBT here.]
Q. We’ve heard about “free range” hens that have access to the outdoors, but in reality, never leave the hen house. How is it on your farms?
A. A typical day for a happy egg hen looks like this: The hens wake up and get a drink of clean water, then head to the feeding troughs to have a breakfast of all-natural feed that is fortified with vitamins and minerals. In the morning, the hens choose a nesting box in which to lay their eggs. Hens have individual preferences about their favorite nesting box. Sometimes, one box will become so popular that the hens will line up and wait their turn to lay their eggs before going outside to spend the day. The eggs in each nesting box gently roll onto a belt which conveys them to the end of the barn, where the farmer picks them by hand and places them in a cooler.
After the hens lay their eggs, we open the doors and the hens rush outside (we call the doors “pop holes” because that’s what the hens use to pop outside) to soak up some sunshine and enjoy free time on the farm. Outside, the hens find their favorite flock members to roam around and explore the pasture and decide how they want to spend their day. Chase a bug, take five in the trees, or just sit back and relax. It’s up to them. As the sun starts to set, the hens naturally head home to the barn before settling in to roost for the night.
Q. What do your hens eat?
A. As our hens spend their time outside all day, they naturally forage and eat grass and other substances found in nature. It’s these natural nutrients and sunshine that give the yolk of a free range egg from the happy egg co. its rich, dark golden shade. The hens are also fed a specially formulated recipe of corn and soy mixed with vitamins and minerals. The feed never has added meat, bone meal, hormones or antibiotics.
Q. Do your eggs show any higher nutritional value based on the hens’ happy lifestyle?
A. Although we do not currently have our own studies to confirm this, Compassion in World Farming literature has compiled several studies that show that pastured hens produce eggs with natural increases in important vitamins, anti-oxidants and omega-3s in a favorable ratio to those bad-boy omega-6s. You can read more about the study and all scientific citations here.
Q. Happy Eggs are not organic. What makes them different from organic eggs?
A. Organic eggs come from hens that are given organic feed—that is, feed without GMOs or pesticides per the USDA standards. Typically, these hens also live primarily inside barns.
At the happy egg co., our hens are housed in barns overnight and are free to go outside every day. Our animal welfare standards go further than the current organic standards, which focus almost exclusively on a hen’s feed and doesn’t guarantee access to the outdoors. We care about providing great nutritious feed too, but our focus is on hens living higher welfare lives.