Vegetarian chickens? Ha! April 10, 2015

One of the weirdest things I see on the cartons  of commercial eggs in stores is this: “Vegetarian-fed.” Vegetarian chickens? Ha! What are they thinking?

Easter Egger chicken: no chickens are vegetarian chickens on purpose

Got meat? You got it. I’ll eat it.

Chickens are omnivores, so even setting aside the conditions most commercial hens endure, it seems strange that any company would purposefully claim their hens are vegetarian chickens. You don’t have to be an expert to remember that chickens eat bugs and all sorts of little critters: worms, grubs, arachnids and more.  And if you ARE a chicken keeper, even a beginner, you doubtless know that chickens not only eat insects and creepy crawlies, but also mice, frogs, snakes, voles and so on. Almost anything small enough to consume, they eat! They are effective predators in that way—the closest thing we have to dinosaurs.

So, what’s with the “vegetarian-fed” labeling? Part of it, I am convinced, is just marketing. Vegetarian chickens: it SOUNDS good—so long as you don’t think about it. “Our cage-free chickens are fed an all-natural vegetarian diet!” But “cage free” means they are crowded into a warehouse, not outside in a field as you might assume… and “vegetarian” means they are purposefully being deprived of their natural diet.

Sigh.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Controlling the diet of your pet chickens is not in and of itself a bad thing. After all, most of us don’t want to feed our chickens “animal byproducts” like, say… chicken. And we tend to try to keep them out of our gardens and landscaping.  Plus–I admit it!–I personally make a practice of saving toads and frogs from my ravenous little dinosaurs in the spring.

Vegetarian chickens--and yet they find these toads delectable

I saved these lovebirds, er—lovetoads—just yesterday by carrying them to a pond further down the mountain where the chickens seldom go.

I’ve even saved the occasional skink, garter snake and newt. I’ve snatched up baby birds who have fallen from the nest too early. I’ve saved baby squirrels and chipmunks. I’ve shooed fingerling fish away from the shore. But this just spares spare my soft heart; it isn’t meant to change my flock into vegetarian chickens. I have no illusions that they find plenty of deer mice, grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles—and probably lots of little frogs and tadpoles—when I’m not around to relocate them. And I’m aware that my “saving” some of their prey makes no difference in the big scheme of things. Even so, I continue. It probably makes a difference to THAT frog or THAT red eft, after all.

But as to their commercial feed? Vegetarian chickens, meh.

That being said, it’s not as if vegetarian feed is bad for them–it can be very good! Chickens can get a complete protein profile from the various grain, legume and seed meals contained in vegetarian commercial feed. My own chickens eat a vegetarian feed… but they’re not vegetarian chickens. Not only do they get to forage for bugs, grubs and other critters in the yard, they also get treats of meal worms, and the occasional fish meal top dressing.

So why advertise that your commercial eggs come from cage-free vegetarian chickens? I’m convinced it’s because it makes most people think their eggs are coming from pastured chickens–chickens with access to real pasture (not just a tiny concrete pad outside a warehouse of ten thousand layers!).

If you don’t keep your own chickens, then be sure to seek out eggs labeled as having come from pastured hens. If your local store doesn’t carry them, find them at a local farmers’ market, or ask your store’s manager to begin carrying them. They are more nutritious–and once you taste eggs laid by hens with access to their real, natural diet–you’ll shake your head, too, when you see a label proclaiming the eggs are from vegetarian chickens.

Farm eggs usually beat grocery store eggs for appearances, even on the outside of the shell!

Farm eggs usually beat commercial eggs for appearances, even on the outside of the shell!

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 Comments
Debbie April 11th, 2015

My dad’s “girls” were pretty much free range. He had about 7 hens, their coop and a fenced in yard for them to enjoy. On the weekends, he’d let them out to roam the acreage once the mowing was finished and they’d be scarfing up grasshoppers and all sorts of bugs in addition to their regular feed. Best eggs ever! I’ve always felt that happy healthy birds lay better eggs.

Wendy K April 13th, 2015

I agree with all your points and that the wording of the labeling is weird 🙂 If I’m not mistaken, that started to appear on egg cartons after Mad Cow Disease appeared, and people realized that feeding livestock “animal meal” derived from random carcasses, unusable for other purposes, could potentially transmit prion disease.

Emma April 28th, 2015

Perhaps you should research overfishing and the feeding of “fishmeal” to farm animals…there are good reasons that companies proclaim that their animals are vegetarian. The environment is at stake.

Lissa April 30th, 2015

Perhaps you overlooked it, but I did explain that “most of us don’t want to feed our chickens ‘animal byproducts.'” That certainly includes fishmeal. Animal “byproducts” are typically… well, I would describe them as the leftover bits. So once the “choice” parts are removed, you have (erg) guts and hooves and bones and connective tissue. While this would boost protein, it’s not a natural diet, either. And by “natural,” I mean that chickens don’t typically forage for fish guts in the pasture (or even cows’ knees or pigs’ feet). Make sense? And while I can’t disagree that overfishing is a terrible thing, since fishmeal is a byproduct, it would be a hard argument to make that using the left over snips and ends in animal feeds, rather than simply discarding them as unusable, leads to overfishing. But all this misses the point. At issue is that where you see the label “vegetarian” hens, it’s almost guaranteed that the chickens are being mistreated. If the hens were being pasture raised–as they should be–you could not advertise that they are vegetarian fed. Instead, “vegetarian” in the commercial context means they are specifically being excluded from their natural diet, which includes, as I mentioned, bugs, grubs, froglets and even the occasional rodent or snake. And this goes to the fact that egg labeling currently legal in the US is some of the most purposefully misleading you’ll come across. “Free range” does not mean actual free range–it means nothing close to what one’s natural assumption would be. It is code for “packed in a warehouse with parts of their beaks cut off to keep them from killing each other from the stress.” And that’s what seeing the “vegetarian-fed” label on grocery store eggs is code for, too. In the backyard context, it’s a good idea–in fact, as I explained above, I feed my own hens a vegetarian feed as their main feed. But my hens have acres of pasture, and are not restricted unnaturally from the outdoors and their natural omnivorous diet.

mary&mollyschicks May 26th, 2015

we sat and watched our small flock of hens chase a snake across the driveway and they won in the end. felt bad for the snake but the hens loved the meal. that’s when I realized they eat meat and are very good hunters.

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