SPECIAL- GREEN- Green eggs a sham? Are you buying ecosmart eggs?

I first encountered the tic tac toe-playing IQ Chicken in Hot Springs, Arkansas, a resort where horse racing junkies and spa lovers meet– and as a diversion play games with– a hen. At the time I paid little attention, being more interested in the medical student who was escorting me to an illegal casino. But I did notice that the bird could beat anyone! 

Later, in New York City's Chinatown, I was astonished to see a similar brainy chicken in an arcade, playing tic tac toe with disheartened opponents who heard a loud speaker intone, "Chicken wins, chicken wins, chicken wins."  

Few people believe that birds are smart and, of course, that's the joke– you've been beaten by a "bird brain"! 

But anyone who has owned a pet cockatiel will tell you that they're just as affectionate as cats and dogs and have as much personality. Scientists are learning that birds' brains are as subtle and complex as many mammals'. Dr. Bernard Rollin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University. writes, "Contrary to what you may hear from the [poultry] industry, chickens are not mindless simple beings but are complex behaviorally, do quite well in learning, show a rich social organization and a diverse repertoire of calls."

Unfortunately, our ignorance of these subtle poultry virtues and the efficiency of the egg industry lead us to treat chickens like machines. Factory farms keep hens in coops called "battery cages" that allow them each 48 square inches; that's about the size of half a sheet of 8-1/2 x 11" paper, not enough room to spread their wings.  

Lack of exercise and a too-high rate of egg production deplete the hen's calcium reserves and cause fractured bones. The wire floor creates foot problems as claws become twisted around the mesh. Because out of frustration and boredom, the birds peck their cage mates, they're often debeaked.  And when egg production slows, the hens are starved to jump-start the molting process to stimulate egg-laying. 

Progressive Charlottesville residents seem interested in better animal care for their own health and enjoyment of food as well as for the animals' sake. After all, most of us eat about 250 eggs a year. If the chicken comes before the egg, we want the source of those eggs well-treated. 

A recent study found that three out of four American consumers will choose food products certified as protecting animal care over those that are not. The study also revealed that participants would be willing to make that choice in favor of animal care even if the products cost more.  

As recently as five years ago, cage-free or free-range eggs were the exception rather than the rule. But recently, a reporter's survey of local groceries found that every one except Sam's Club carries some brand of cage-free eggs. This egg audit included 12 large chain stores and eight middle-sized or small groceries, as well as the Saturday farmer's market. Clearly there's a market for better eggs.

Some customers are beginning to vote with their pocketbooks and pick out the egg cartons marked "organic," "cage-free," or "free-range." (In addition, many buy from local residents who simply sell eggs from their backyard chickens.)

But egg carton claims can be deceptive. Boxes say "organic," free-roaming," and "UEP Certified." Are we to believe Harris Teeter "Born Free" eggs are really born free? Are "Naturals" (another Harris Teeter brand) raised naturally? And should shoppers fall for a picture of a happy hen sitting on a nest?

Unfortunately, many of the marketing ploys should be taken with a grain of salt: animal welfare claims on cartons are unregulated in the United States, except for the term "organic."

Take a look at Charlottesville's egg offerings [sidebar] and how they're advertised. All prices are recent and pertain only to large eggs– but remember that egg prices fluctuate. 

Our egg practices illustrate how far behind Europe the United States is. The European Union (EU) has announced a Europe-wide ban on battery cages by 2012, but the U.S. egg industry (UEP) has no plans to phase out battery cages. On the contrary, it has given itself until 2012 to merely increase cage space per individual hen from the standard 48 sq. inches to 67 sq. inches for the smaller white leghorns, and 86 sq. inches for the larger brown hens, still smaller than a piece of writing paper. 

The UEP Animal Husbandry Guidelines provide no way to meet the chickens' needs to perch, sunbathe, or exercise. Caged hen houses are loaded with dust and toxic gases including ammonia from the decomposing uric acid in the mountains of manure. The guidelines do not stop debeaking. They only recommend against forced molting by starvation.

By contrast, the Humane Farm Animal Care Program, based in Herndon, is a private consumer certification and labeling program focused on the welfare of farm animals. Thus, when you see "Certified Humane Raised and Handled," you know that the food meets standards developed by a team of veterinarians and scientists to ensure that producers and processors keep animals in good conditions. Annual re-inspections are necessary. 

"What's inside your Egg Carton?" asked a recent ad by another private group, Compassion for Animals, which answered its own question thusly: "Behind nearly every egg sold in grocery stores today is a hen confined inside a wire battery cage so restrictive she can barely move. To make matters worse, not only is the egg industry keeping nearly 300 million hens in such cruel conditions, it's also deceiving consumers about that abuse through false or exaggerated claims on cartons. Learn the truth. Demand the truth." 

In 2006, Compassion for Animals partnered with the Penn Law Animal Project at University of Pennsylvania to petition the FDA to require truth in American egg labeling and imagery. The European Union now requires exact meanings for "Free Range Eggs," "Barn Eggs," and "Cage Eggs." American consumers' concerns about treatment of poultry are as strong as Europeans', and our regulations should reflect that.  

Dr. Lesley Rogers, Professor of Zoology at the University of New England in Australia, says, "It's clear that birds have cognitive capacities equivalent to those of mammals and primates."

Dr. Joy Mench of the Department of Animal Science at the University of California writes, "Chickens show sophisticated social behavior... that's what a pecking order is all about. They can recognize more than a hundred other chickens and remember them. They make more than thirty types of vocalizations." 

However, the United Egg Producers, who represent a majority of egg producers, insists the industry has made giant strides.

"In 2002," says UEP spokesperson Diane Storey, "we put together an advisory committee of ethicists, veterinarians, animal behaviorists, and animal science experts who created our guidelines. They increased the amount of required space by 40 percent and instituted air quality guidelines, feed requirements, and transportation requirements.

"All of this," Storey concludes, "is based on the science of what's best for the hens, not what's best for people's emotions."

When visiting grocery stores, I would occasionally hear comments from buyers of free-range eggs. As one woman picked up a carton marked "cage free," her male companion asked, "Why do you buy those expensive eggs?" She answered, "I feel guilty buying regular eggs." He replied, "Well, everything else we eat is regular, and when the day is done, they're going to sell them to Kentucky Fried Chicken, and they'll all die!"  

I'm thinking that the IQ Chicken should be freed.

Editor's note: Virginia Daugherty isn't new to advocating for her neighbors. She's a former city councilor and mayor of Charlottesville.

SIDEBAR- Egg-buyer's guide

Caged Hen Eggs 

Approximately 95 percent of Charlottesville eggs come from caged hens. According to the United Egg Producers (an industry association), here's the good side: caged hens seldom require medicine and provide cleaner eggs. The hens are protected from predators and severe weather. 

According to the animal protection community, the bad side is that caged hens live frustrated, physically miserable lives encased in barren wire. They cannot perch, dustbathe, sunbathe, exercise, or socialize normally and do not have a secluded place to lay their eggs. They may be painfully debeaked so they won't peck each other to death.  

Most of the following egg cartons say "UEP Certified," a certification from United Egg Producers that applies to caged birds.

 "We can't vouch for anything that isn't UEP certified," says UEP spokesperson Diane Storey.

UEP guidelines state that birds have easy access to water, food, and fresh air. Each hen should have 67 to 86 square inches per bird (about the size of an 8-1/2 x 11 sheet of paper). Debeaking is allowed; starvation for molting is not encouraged– but it's not forbidden.

Can the fox guard the henhouse? Remember, these are only guidelines.

Food Lion (Fifth Street): $1.39

Food Lion (Pantops and Forest Lakes): $1.69 

Giant (Pantops): $1.89 

Giant (Seminole Square): $2.89 

Harris Teeter (Barracks Road): $1.89 

Harris Teeter (Target): $1.79 [Buy one, get one free the day I went]

Harris Teeter: for $2.89, both stores carry Born Free eggs from caged hens!

Kroger (Rio Hill, Hydraulic and Barracks Road): $1.29 

Reid: Our Family, $1.35; Crystal Spring, $1.55  

Sam's Club: Eggland's Best, $2.08 

Cage-free, certified organic and free-range eggs 

Cage-free should be better, right?

But I have to tell a story to illustrate the problem here. Once I was vacationing on the Eastern Shore and took a hike with my husband. Walking down a shady country road, we came upon a huge windowless barn in a field. 

"Why is it totally windowless?" was our question. Then we spotted a tiny 8" x 11" window on one end of the barn. I couldn't resist crossing the field to peep inside. I was a trespasser, but there was no one in sight to stop me.

I peeped in and saw a football field-sized floor of white chickens, packed in like sardines. I gasped– it was horrifying. They were like prisoners with no beds, and movement was virtually impossible. 

Recently though, farmers have invented a new and improved cage-free barn. This model has sides that raise to admit fresh air and natural light. Stacks of boxes with little rooftops provide nice nests and places for perching. And in the center of the barn is a large area for scratching, which hens are naturally programmed to do. 

The problem is that when you're in the store you don't know which type of barn these cage-free eggs came from, unless the carton says "Certified Humane Raised & Handled," a designation from Humane Farm Animal Care, an independent, non-profit organization that conducts regular inspections that guarantees that the hens have a nutritious diet, shelter, resting areas, sufficient space, gentle handling and the ability to engage in natural behaviors. No beak-trimming or starvation-induced molting allowed.  

Eggland's Best sold at Rio Hill Kroger, Hydraulic Road Kroger, Pantops Giant, Barracks Road Kroger, and Seminole Square Giant: $2.79. 

Do not confuse them with the regular Eggland's Best not labeled cagefree. The Eggland's Director of Quality Assurance, Bert Slaugh, told me over the phone that these hens have nests and perches, and some barns have the raised sides. The hens are, however, beak-trimmed.

Farmhouse: at Fifth Street Food Lion, $1.59; Pantops Food Lion, $2.29; and Forest Lakes Food Lion, $2.29.  

Giving Nature: $2.99 at Whole Foods. These eggs bear the Certified Humane Raised & Handled label.

Horizon Organic: Barracks Road Harris Teeter, $3.99; Reid Supermarket, $3.39, Pantops Giant, $2.99; and Harris Teeter by Target, $4.29, Foods of All Nations, $3.79.

For over a year, the Organic Consumers Association and the Boulder Co-op Market have boycotted Horizon dairy products because they allegedly pen cows in intensive confinement without access to pasture and thus questionably using the term "organic."

The USDA designation "organic" can be ambiguous. While the hens must be fed an antibiotic-free diet of 100 percent-certified organic feed, hens must merely be allowed "access" to the outdoors, but the outdoor size is not stipulated nor are birds required to go outside, and many do not. Temporary confinement is allowed, and there is no stipulation on how long "temporary" can be. Debeaking is allowed, but starvation-forced molting is not.

Glenwood Farms: Foods of All Nations, $1.79, Anderson's Carriage Food House, $1.29. Glenwood Farms is a certified organic grower. 

Naturals: Barracks Road Harris Teeter, $2.79.   

Nature's Promise: Pantops Giant, $3.19; Seminole Square Giant, $2.99.

The OCA and a number of co-ops are also boycotting Nature's Promise, for the same reason as Horizon.

Whole Dairy: Whole Foods, $1.99.

Whole Foods professes to be a leader in animal welfare, and in 2005 the company started an organization called Animal Compassion Foundation. They began developing a five-step animal welfare rating program, but they have completed only the first four steps. Their PR person says the hens have access to the outdoors, but she does not know whether they have nests. She also promised to send a copy of the standards Whole Foods currently uses, but six weeks have passed and she has not sent them, even with a reminder call.

Moveable barn (eggmobile) eggs 

Also known as eggmobiles, the clever moveable barns provide shelter with nesting boxes, sunlight, and air, and are moved frequently to new pasture so hens can enjoy a fresh patch of grass– and a fresh trove of insects.

Faith Mission Home: C'ville Market on Carlton Road, $1.69, Foods of All Nations, $2.99. 

Blue Ridge Country Store, $2.49

Reid, $2.79

Polyface Inc. at Feast! in Main Street Market, $2.65, Foods of All Nations, $4.69.

Brightwood Vineyard and Farm: Saturday City Market, $3 

Radical Roots Farm: Saturday City Market, $3.50  

Traditional barn hens 

These lucky chickens are more like the classic story of the Little Red Hen. They freely day range and stay in a traditional coop with nests and perches.

Double H Farm: Feast in Main Street Market, $4.25

Horse & Buggy: Rebecca's, $4.49 

Hillsdale Farm: Rebecca's, $3.49 

Mona Lisa Pasta: $2.99. (A friend glowingly praised the taste of these eggs: "They are so orange!") 

Potluck Farm at City Market, $2.50. (Patsy Floyd, wearing a pink baseball hat saying "Get R Done," says she knows all her hens' names!)