Lower-suffering egg brands available in the SF Bay Area

(Disclaimer: I am not an animal welfare researcher or expert. I got all of my information from publicly-available certification standards, farm websites, and emailing individual farms.)

I’m not a vegan, but I’ve long felt troubled by the fact that eggs have such a high suffering-to-calorie ratio — higher, by some calculations, than beef[1] . I like eating eggs, and it seems possible to raise laying hens in a humane and low-suffering way, so I looked into whether I could purchase eggs from brands that treat their chickens well (or at least, less badly).

TL;DR: See here for egg brands I recommend that are sold in the Bay Area. If you’re not based in the Bay Area, I recommend Cornucopia’s Egg Scorecard tool and the Animal Welfare Approved store locator to find low-suffering eggs in your market area.

What does “lower-suffering” mean?

I don’t know how to tell whether a hen’s life is “overall happy” or “net-positive” (or if that’s even a coherent way to think about this question). Instead, I looked into common industry practices that are harmful to laying hens, and tried to find brands that avoid those practices. To do this, I used the qualifying criteria for A Greener World’s Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) certification, which I’ve personally heard animal welfare researchers speak highly of.

Unfortunately, very few egg brands (and none available in my current city) have an AWA certification, so rather than relying on certification status, I evaluated each brand on a per-criteria basis.

Based on the AWA standards for laying hens, my criteria included:

  • No physical mutilation. This includes debeaking (removing the whole beak), beak trimming (removing the sharp tip of the beak that the hen uses to forage and groom), toe-trimming (removing the hen’s claws), etc. The AWA certification forbids all physical alterations.

  • No forced-molting. This involves starving hens for 1-2 weeks, which forces them into a molt (losing feathers), resetting their reproductive cycle so that they can restart egg production with higher yields. AWA forbids this.

  • Access to outdoor space and foraging. AWA mandates that outdoor foraging is accessible for at least 50% of daylight hours, and that housing is designed to encourage birds to forage outdoors during the day. The outdoor space must be an actual nice place to forage, with food and vegetation to provide cover from predators, and not just a dirt field. Indoor confinement is prohibited.

  • Age of outdoor access for pullets (young hens). Many farms keep pullets indoors for their safety even if adult hens forage outdoors. If you keep pullets indoors for too long, it seems that they became scared to go outside. AWA’s standard is 4 weeks; many standard farms don’t allow outdoor access until >12 weeks (if outdoor access is provided at all).

  • Indoor space. The hens’ indoor housing or shelter must have at least 1.8 square feet per bird, unless they only return to their indoor housing to lay and sleep and spend the rest of the time outdoors.

  • Smaller flock size. AWA has no strict requirements here, but recommends a flock size of <500 birds, and notes that the birds must have a stable group size and be monitored to minimize fighting. This is much smaller than standard farms, which often have flock sizes of 10,000+ hens.

(The AWA certification has a ton more requirements than just this, but I limited my criteria to ones that I could easily check using online materials).

Is this enough?

I’m not sure. I’ve sometimes thought that avoiding industry-standard factory farms is like avoiding using prisons that violate the Geneva Convention: it prevents the worst atrocities, but by no means guarantees a good life. At other times, I read about the hens at the farms I buy from and think they sound like they’re having a pretty good time. The standards mentioned above, while fairly minimal, are already very different from industry standard practice, and my guess is that if a farm is willing to implement them, they’re probably much more likely to care about their birds’ wellbeing. Some of the top brands I mention below go above and beyond the minimal criteria listed above.

Edited to add: Some criteria that I would like to use when comparing farms, but couldn’t find enough data on:

  • Whether the farm uses heritage breeds: my understanding is that heritage breeds lay fewer eggs, but have healthier genetics and fewer chronic health issues.

  • How the farm handles male chicks: I’m pretty sure that male chicks are always killed (or sold to be killed), but I don’t know if some farms do this more humanely than others. Even AWA does not forbid male chick culling, sadly, so it’s probably the default practice until the US adopts in-ovo sexing.

  • How well the farm cares for the health of its hens: Farm chickens face many common diseases and health issues, such as bone fractures from insufficient calcium (eggshell production requires a lot of calcium, leaving less for healthy bone growth). I don’t have the expertise to evaluate how well a farm mitigates this, or how well they care for injured or sick hens.

Most recommended, but not widely available:

  • Fifth Crow Farm is Animal Welfare Approved, and sells at farmer’s markets in SF and the South Bay, as well as via farm pickup. They use heritage breeds, have a limited quantity of eggs available per year, and typically run out by the end of the laying season. They seem to really care about their chickens.

I found several other farms that aren’t AWA-approved, but score well on the welfare criteria I mentioned above, and are more widely available at standard grocery stores:

In general, higher-welfare farms seem to be much lower volume, and typically only sell at a few grocery stores. This makes sense since chickens benefit from smaller flock sizes and fewer laying cycles, but it also means that it’s harder to find stores that carry these brands. In my experience, Alexandre Kids is the most widely-available of the top brands I recommend.

If you’re not based in the Bay Area, or can’t find the above brands at your local grocery store, I recommend using Cornucopia’s Egg Scorecard tool to find brands that sell in your market area, or using the Animal Welfare Approved store locator (which is unfortunately a bit janky, but still works).

In researching this, I also found that many farms that brand themselves as humane or “pasture raised” but seem likely to be high-suffering. Here are some humane-looking brands that I don’t recommend:

  • Vital Farms permits beak trimming, has large flocks of >20,000 birds, doesn’t meet the minimum of 1.8 square feet of indoor space per bird, and doesn’t let their pullets outside until 22 weeks.[2]

  • Happy Egg permits beak trimming, has flock sizes of up to 20,000 birds, and doesn’t let their pullets outside until 22 weeks.[2]

  • Judy’s Family Farm, Uncle Eddie’s Wild Hens, Rock Island, Petaluma Farms, Organic Valley: in California, these are all different distribution labels for Petaluma Farms, which keeps their hens confined indoors for life. The “Judy’s Family Farms” branch of Petaluma is USDA Certified Organic, a certification that typically mandates outdoor access; however, Judy’s Family Farms manages to technically meet this requirement by using small caged-in outdoor porches.[3] (Note: The report I learned this from was from 2015; if their standards have improved since then I don’t know about it).

Fifth Crow FarmsBurroughs Family FarmsAlexandre KidsStueve OrganicSt. John Family Farms (“Outdoor Hens”)
Available atVarious farmer’s markets in SF and the South BayWhole Foods locations in BerkeleyMany grocery stores across the west coast, including Whole Foods, Berkeley Bowl, etc. Easiest to find of all the ones mentioned here.Occasionally Berkeley Bowl Occasionally Berkeley Bowl
CertificationsAnimal Welfare Approved[4]USDA Certified Organic[5], Certified Humane[5],
Cornucopia Top-Rated[2]
Certified Humane[5],
USDA Organic[5],
Cornucopia Top-Rated[2]
USDA Organic[5],
Cornucopia Top-Rated[2]
Beak trimming?No[6]No[2]No[2]No longer allowed, but some flocks still have birds that were beak-trimmed[2]No[7]
Forced molting?No[6]No[2]No[2]No[2]No[7]
Outdoor accessMobile coops with
easy pasture access[4]
Mobile coops with easy pasture access, ensures all hens utilize outdoor space [2]Mobile coops with easy pasture access, ensures all hens utilize outdoor space [2]Mobile coops with easy pasture access, ensures all hens utilize outdoor space[2]Mobile coops with pasture access[7]
Quality of outdoor pasturePasture with lots of vegetation, rotated to a new forage weekly[4]Pasture with >85% vegetation cover, rotated to new forage frequently[2]Pasture with >85% vegetation cover, rotated to new forage frequently[2]Pasture with >85% vegetation cover, rotated to new forage frequently[2]I don’t know
Pullet age at outdoor access<4 weeks[6]12 weeks,[2] which is later than the AWA requirement of 4 weeks6-10 weeks[2], which is later than the AWA
requirement of 4 weeks
Around 4 weeks[2]2-4 weeks[7]
Sufficient indoor spaceBirds are only indoors
to lay and sleep[4]
1.92 sq ft per bird>1.8 sq ft per bird[2]1.6 sq ft per bird, which is less than AWA’s requirement of 1.8 sq ft[2]I don’t know
Flock size350 hens[4]500 hens[2]<2,500 hens[2]<300 hens[2]1200-1500 hens[7]
Raises own hens from hatching?Yes[4]Purchases chicks to raise on-farm[2]Purchases chicks to raise on-farm[2]70% of flock is hatched on-farm, other hens are purchased as pullets[2]Purchases chicks to raise on-farm[7]

Information sources

Much of my information on different farms’ practices comes from The Cornucopia Institute, a consumer watchdog nonprofit focused on organic farming which produces publicly-available scorecards for various egg farms [2]. They rate farms based on things I don’t care as much about (like organic feed), but lots of things I do care about (break trimming, forced molting, outdoor access, flock size, etc). Cornucopia vets organic farms by asking them to provide documentation and photos related to their practices, and incorporates farm transparency (how well the farm cooperated with requests for information) into their score.

I also used information from other any certifications that a farm has:

  • Certified Humane prohibits “debeaking” (removing the whole beak) but still permits “beak trimming” (removing the tip of the beak). It prohibits forced-molting.

  • USDA Certified Organic prohibits battery cages and continuous indoor confinement.

(Note: “Certified Humane” should not be confused with “American Humane Certified”, which has very low standards and basically doesn’t mean anything).

In the case of St. John Family Farms, I couldn’t find outside information on them, so I emailed them and asked, and hopefully they were honest.

  1. ^

    Per this Vox article: “If you crunch the numbers on amount of harm done per meal, or per calorie consumed, then by far the strongest argument is to cut out chicken, then (non-free range) eggs, then pork. The argument for cutting out beef, and especially the argument for cutting out milk, is much, much weaker.”
    Brian Tomasik’s 2007 food suffering calculator and foodimpacts.org give similar results.

  2. ^

    Source: Cornucopia’s 2023 egg scorecards here. See an explanation of their standards here.

  3. ^
  4. ^

    Source: Fifth Crow Farm’s website.

  5. ^

    The USDA Certified Organic and Certified Humane standards both provide some minimum bars I care about: USDA Certified Organic prohibits continuous indoor confinement, and Certified Humane prohibits forced-molting and debeaking (though not beak trimming). Note: “Certified Humane” should not be confused with “American Humane Certified”, which has very low standards and basically doesn’t mean anything.

  6. ^
  7. ^

    Source: I emailed St. John Family Farms in 2023 and asked, and hopefully they weren’t dishonest.