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'Cage-free' eggs: not all they're cracked up to be?

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The egg has long been known as "nature's perfect food." It's versatile, convenient, cleverly packaged, and was once accepted by many vegetarians as a form of nourishment that does no harm to animals. But in recent years that reputation has been under attack.

Chickens are perhaps the least protected of farm animals. All farm animals are exempt from the federal Animal Welfare Act, but unlike other types of livestock, chickens are also exempt from individual state laws prohibiting cruelty to animals and from the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

All of which sends up red flags to both careful cooks and ethical eaters. They are not only worried about the quality of the eggs they eat, but also with the quality of life of the chickens that produce those eggs. That's why a fraction of consumers select - and some spend more for - egg cartons that carry labels like "Animal Care Certified" or "cage free." They may not understand exactly what these labels mean, but they hope they offer some assurance that the eggs come from hens living in healthy and humane conditions.

But too often, say animal advocates, that is not the case.

The logo "Animal Care Certified" today appears on about 80 percent of egg cartons sold in American supermarkets. It means that the hens who laid the eggs were treated in accord with guidelines created by the United Egg Producers, the umbrella group which oversees most of the large, commercial egg producers in the US. But in August, the animal-advocacy organization Compassion Over Killing took issue with the "Animal Care Certified" logo.

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