THIS one is for you egg eaters out there in Hipfishland who need a little help to make an informed choice when it comes to buying eggs. Today, there are several options in the egg section at your local grocery store beyond the factory-produced “offspring” of Big Ag. My purpose here is not to be preachy about whether you should or should not eat eggs. Instead, I will explore some of the common terms used when marketing alternatively produced eggs. Egg Carton 101, so to speak.
Many of us (myself included) like to imagine that the eggs we eat come from happy chickens that have the run of a fenced in yard all day, then hop onto a roost in the coop to go night-night. For most of the eggs available in the grocery isles, that little fantasy couldn’t be farther from the truth.
The majority of eggs come from factory-farmed hens that are raised in battery cages. This is an industrial agricultural confinement system consisting of multiple tiers of cages in a barn or shed. Under the worst circumstances, chickens are crammed in the cages in such numbers that their movement is restricted. Their diet is manipulated to maximize egg production, sometimes forcing repeated molting. To minimize pecking behavior, their beaks may be trimmed, a procedure considered to cause acute pain and distress with possible chronic pain for the all-too short lifetime of the birds. To keep the bored hens from pecking each other to death, the light intensity is kept low. These birds never get to experience fresh air and sunlight. Lack of exercise and the calcium demand of egg production often lead to osteoporosis in battery-caged hens. One study estimates that at least 25% of battery-caged chickens suffer from bone fractures due to osteoporosis. Laying hens can endure such a lifestyle for about a year before egg production decreases and the birds are “retired.”
Horrifying as this industry is, it is regulated with respect to the minimum amount of space that each bird is allowed. Ever so slowly, regulations are changing toward requiring more humane conditions for the chickens. Several countries (unfortunately not the US) have outlawed battery-cage methods of egg production and the EU has been phasing out the process over several years, culminating in 2012.
The good news is that there are more humane and healthy methods now in use for egg production. Egg distributors take advantage of public interest in humane conditions for animals by marketing their products using terms such as “cage-free”, “free-range”, or “natural.” Some of the terminology used on egg cartons refers to the chicken’s diet, others to the chicken’s living conditions.
Cage-Free means that the hens are raised in barns, but they are not caged and can move about. This allows them experience some of the things chickens like to do: flap their wings, scratch at the floor, take dust baths, get a little exercise. They might or might not still be fed hormones, have their beaks trimmed, and live in the dark.
“Free Range” as read on an egg carton doesn’t really mean that chickens get free access to the great outdoors. The US Dept. of Agriculture requires only that the birds have access to outside part of the day, yet allows egg producers to label these eggs as free-range. Anything more generous than that is up to the farmers and distributors.
Much of the terminology printed on egg cartons refer to how the hens are fed. Chicken eggs that are labeled as being high in omega 3 fatty acids are from hens that are fed a diet containing polyunsaturated fats and kelp meal. “Vegetarian diet” and “grain fed” refer to chickens that are not fed any meat, meat-by products, or petroleum-enhanced feed. Organic eggs, with the USDA organic symbol on the carton, are from hens that are fed only organic vegetarian feed and are also allowed some access to outdoors.
As one might expect, organic free-range eggs are more expensive than factory eggs from battery-caged hens. A trip to a few local grocery stores yielded egg prices from $1.29/dozen for white factory-farmed eggs to $4.99/dozen for organic brown free-range eggs (sourced from a farm in Washington state).
The word “natural” is a vaguely used term that may imply that chickens are not given hormones, antibiotics, or other drugs, except during illness. The true natural diet of chickens is what they would get on their own outside: grass and bugs. Pasture-raised free-range hens which forage largely for their own food (with some supplemental feed) tend to produce eggs with higher nutritional quality in having less cholesterol and fats while being several times higher in vitamins and omega 3 fatty acids than standard factory eggs. Pastured poultry are truly free-range chickens and their lives most closely resemble the Disney-esque fantasy I posited above. Their eggs are superior in taste compared to factory eggs and are much better for you.
Sadly, local eggs from pasture-raised hens are currently not available in stores in our area. Eggs sold in stores must pass through government-regulated inspection and grading facilities, of which there are currently none on the North Coast. We can only buy local “grass-fed” eggs direct from farmers – at roadside stands, at farmers markets, or via CSA. The cost is reasonable, ranging from $3 – $5/dozen.
To read more about the nutritional value of eggs from pastured hens, go to: motherearthnews.com/Real-Food/2007-10-01/Tests-Reveal-Healthier-Eggs.aspx.