Let’s take a look at what you’re getting when you purchase eggs by looking at what the label might say, and what it means (or, in most cases, doesn’t mean).
Stephen Colbert once interviewed author Jonathan Safran Foer, who called the US farm system “perfectly antithetical to American values.” Foer explained that 99% of agriculture is factory farming, and all the labeling is “B.S. … it means nothing.” Cobert responded, “No, free range means that the chickens get up in the morning and they run over fields, fields of flowers. And at the end of the day they make love, and from this lovemaking an egg emerges.”
We would like to think this, but a brief look at the USDA labeling regulations, and you’ll see that most of the info on egg cartons means nothing. Free range, to the USDA, somehow means only having access to the outside. The USDA does not specify the quality or amount of outside area to which the chickens must be “allowed access,” nor the duration of time they must have access to the outside. There is nothing preventing a factory farm from labeling eggs as free range, merely because the structure in which the chickens live has a door to an outside yard.
In fact, Michael Pollan writes in The Omnivore’s Dilemma: Since the food and water remain inside the shed, and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled into their habits, the chickens apparently see no reason to venture into what must seem for them an unfamiliar and terrifying world.
There’s a very good chance that a free-range chicken, whether raised for eggs or meat, has never seen the light of day. (This is not unique to the United States, by the way. Wakker Dier, a Dutch animal rights group, chose free range egg as the year’s most misleading term.)
And it should go without saying that free range doesn’t mean that the chickens are fed organically or are hormone and antibiotic-free.
There is no legal designation or regulation for eggs to be labeled as cage free.
Most factory farms (at least 97% according this New York Times article) keep their hens in battery cages: rows and rows of wire cages in which chickens are given insufficient room to accommodate their wingspan, and are often prevented from even turning around. In fact, a recent study done, in part, by the Humane Society of the United States, reports that “The recommended space allowance for laying hens in some countries is 60-80 square inches per hen, barely enough for the hen to turn around and not enough for her to perform normal comfort behaviors; however, many hens are allowed less than even that meager amount.”
In a cage-free facility, battery cages are supposedly not used, and typically a hen will have enough room to walk around and extend her wings, but the facilities may still be crowded, and birds may still be debeaked. This entails the trimming of a portion of a bird’s beak in order to combat cannibalism and feather pecking that may occur among birds kept in close quarters.
(California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law this year legislation making California the first cage-free state in the US. The law requires that starting in 2015 all whole, in-shell eggs sold in California must come from hens that are able to stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs without touching one another or the sides of an enclosure. Note this will not affect eggs sold as ‘egg products.’)
For eggs to be labeled organic, they must come from farms that meet the USDA’s National Organic Standards and are annually inspected to ensure compliance. In short, hens should be fed organic feed – no animal byproducts or genetically modified crops – produced on land that has been free from the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years. The hens themselves must be maintained without hormones and other intrusive drugs and antibiotics may only be used in cases in cases of outbreak or disease. Forced molting and debeaking are permitted in certified-organic production.
‘Natural,’ for all intents and purposes, means nothing.
Pastured chickens should be housed on grassland in portable shelters that are periodically moved to give the chickens fresh pasture, but there is no third-party inspection required to ensure that is really happening.
This means hens were fed feed with an increased amount of omega-3-rich ingredients, usually flaxseeds. This does not have to do with the hens’ living standards. (As you will see below, pasture-raised hens are already higher in beneficial omega-3s, so supplementation would not be necessary if chickens were raised in a way that respected what a chicken innately does!)
This means birds are not kept in cages, but they can be kept indoors. They should have the space to perform natural behaviors. The program of Human Farm Animal Care sets limits on the number of birds that can be contained in the same area, and outside inspectors perform audits. The program does not, however, require that the animals eat organic feed.
United Egg Producers Certified
This, along with natural, is considered to be one of the most misleading claims made on an egg carton. While forced molting is prohibited under this certification, debeaking is allowed, along with other inhumane and unsanitary practices, such as the use of battery cages.
Let me be clear, these are not just animal welfare concerns. They lie at the heart of the safety and nutritional value of the eggs we eat.
A recent Penn State study, published in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, found that eggs from pastured hens (kept outside on different pastures and allowed to exhibit natural behavior and forage for bugs and grasses) boasted higher vitamin and omega-3 fatty acid levels as compared to commercially fed, battery-cage-kept hens. In this study, eggs from pastured hens contained twice as much vitamin E and 2.5 times more total omega-3 fatty acids.
The farther you take chickens away from their natural behaviors – pecking in the dirt, dusting, foraging – the worse the quality of their eggs or meat. Chicken expert Gail Damerow, author of Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens explains: The pressure of the wire cages against their feet causes infections, their feathers rub off on the side of the cages. Basically, they’re just totally frustrated… They can’t run around and eat flies and take dust baths.
One result of all that stress and cruelty is that confined birds’ eggs contain less nutrition than eggs from hens with room to roam.
I’d like to share some information about one of the farms from which we get our eggs. Mother Earth News compared my farmer’s eggs with a USDA standard egg. Here’s the comparison:
- Farm egg vitamin E: 7.37 mg
USDA egg vitamin E: 0.97 mg
- Vitamin A: 763 IU
USDA vitamin A: 487 IU
- Beta carotene: 76.2 mcg
USDA beta carotene: 10 mcg
- Folate: 10200 mcg
USDA folate: 47 mcg
- Omega-3s: 0.71 g
USDA omega-3s: 0.033g
- Cholesterol: 292 mg
USDA cholesterol: 423 mg
- Saturated Fat: 2.31 g
USDA saturated fat: 3.1 g
Now, doesn’t it seem obvious that when we respect what animals were created to do and how they were designed to live, it pays us back ten-fold by them providing food that nourishes us how we were designed to be nourished?
Oh, and there’s a much higher risk of Salmonella contamination in eggs from hens kept in cages. (Anyone hear of a recent egg recall?) In fact, there have been at least ten studies published in the past five years confirming this fact. Read more details here.
Where to Get Healthy Eggs
Eggs are high in so many nutrients, and are such an easy go-to food, it’s worth a little thought and effort to find eggs you can enjoy without worry.
You could raise backyard chickens, something that used to seem kooky and is now becoming more and more common. I actually hope to be blogging about this after some serious negotiation with my husband, and maybe a talk or two with my neighbors . I just met someone at a Christmas party who told me how to keep chickens comfortable during our Northern Virginia winters, so I’m very excited about the prospect of this!
In an ideal buying situation, you would purchase your eggs from a local farmer in your area who raises chickens on pasture with plenty of space per bird, and uses moveable, open-air chicken houses to protect the birds from predators. You can look for this type of farmer on LocalHarvest.org or EatWild.org, or get in touch with your local chapter of the Weston A. Price Foundation for referrals.
What about the cost?
If the above information doesn’t convince you that safe, nutrient-dense food is worth the cost, I can only leave you with two further thoughts:
*It is understandable that humane animal husbandry, quality food and smaller farms and flocks leads to higher costs. When there is also higher demand – and I mean demand as in more of us DEMANDING our food be safe and nutritious – prices will drop for all of us. Be the change you want to see.
*One of my favorite quotes from Food, Inc. comes from Polyface Farm farmer Joel Salatin: I’ve had people come up in farmer’s markets and say, ‘What!? Three dollars a dozen for eggs?’ and they’re drinking a seventy-five cent can of soda! Check your priorities.
- Note that the above picture is of hens laying eggs destined to be packaged as Organic Valley eggs. If you need another reason to boycott Organic Valley, see here.
- If you need another reason to boycott McDonald’s, The New York Times reported last spring that the board of directors of McDonald’s advised against mandating that a measly 5 percent of the fast-food joint’s eggs come from cage-free chickens.
- It’s Christmastime! If you have safe eggs, try this real Eggnog! (And let me know how it is!)
- If you haven’t yet, visit my last post based on a reader question about hard-boiling farm-fresh eggs.
- Coming up: Some final egg thoughts, mostly about the effects of regulation, especially on the heals of the tragic passage of the so-called Food Safety Bill. (Spoiler alert: Just get your eggs from a farmer you know, while you can!)
Added Note: After I wrote this post, it occurred to me that I didn’t mention another recent egg carton labeling favorite: All Vegetarian Feed. Chickens are omnivores. End of story.
Second Added Note: My dear friend Laura just shared this great link: The Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard.
Third (and final?) Added Note: Find some great uses for your eggs at the end of this post.
This post was entered at Kelly the Kitchen Kop’s Real Food Wednesday.
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