Pasta. Few things are as satisfying as a bowl of noodles drowning in sauce or drizzled in butter or olive oil. Barilla, an Italian conglomerate that dates back to 1877, does pasta fairly well. Its US division is successful, and has become a staple not only in some homes, but on cable television, where its commercials woo us between reality show breaks on the Food Network and Bravo.
Plenty of pasta companies exist, and the carb-ridden treat took its lump earlier this decade when low-carb diets were all the rage. But now pasta is back, and even a benign, non-controversial dish cannot escape growing consumer interest in where food actually originates and how it is made. Barilla has taken a huge step forward that not only differentiates itself from the competition, but can make a decadent meal a little more guilt-free.
Barilla has announced that 45% of its eggs in its supply chain will be cage-free by the end of this year. Unless one of its competitors has a feeble PR machine, Barilla is the first company in its space to take make a significant move away from caged eggs.
The definition of cage-free confuses many and satisfies few. Generally the term means that the hens have double or triple the space they would have in a factory farm. That may still sound low-rent to advocates who rail against factory farms, but the shift is still significant.
You do not have to do much research to discover the cruel effects of caged hens: as many as 280 to 325 million egg laying hens are packed into cages stacked on top each other. Their beaks are cut off to prevent pecking that results from excessive stress; their bodies are severely taxed from constantly laying eggs, or “force molted,” which involves tossing them into the dark and denying them water, which in turn jolts them into another egg-laying cycle. Osteoporosis and bruising take their toll, and generally these hens end up in low grade products like soups or frozen dinners to hide their bruises.
The cage-free label does not mean a perfectly raised bird, but Barilla has made a commendable decision. It may also just be a reality that companies face as their customers question their food’s integrity from farm to table. California and Michigan have passed laws that require eggs to only come from cage-free hens, and chains like Trader Joe’s will not put their label on eggs from factory farms. Some companies may resist, but the change has begun.
Remember that caged free hens may still have their beaks cut off and do not necessarily roam around a bucolic farm; if ethical eggs are a concern of yours, plenty of suggestions are available on the web that advise how to buy the most humane eggs possible. Question your farmers market vendors on how their eggs are produced, or consider hosting a couple in your backyard. But remember that “natural eggs” display that word generously. On my recent trip to the Balkans, I walked through plenty of open markets that sold gorgeous eggs, and they were fresh all right: they were spotted, and not because they were dyed for Easter, if you catch my drift…