Egg Shopping: What to Buy?

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Mera Granberg

Mera Granberg › A committed left-coaster, Mera is a fifth generation Californian with a passionate interest in food and ...

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I regularly stand in front of the egg wall at the grocery store and wonder what’s the difference? There’s $8 eggs and $3 eggs and they pretty much look the same to me.

So, what gives? And what do all those words on the carton actually mean?

Turns out “organic” is pretty specific. To lay an organic egg, chickens are fed organic feed containing no animal byproducts or GMO products. Chickens may only be given antibiotics during an infectious outbreak. Organic chickens are cage-free and they must have access to the outdoors. In the US, beak clipping and forced molting do not preclude an animal – or her egg – from being organic.

“Cage-Free” is a legal distinction that in the US applies only to poultry. Cage-free means that these birds are never in a cage, duh, but often these hens are still confined in barns at such high population densities that a practice like beak clipping is required.

“Free-range” is a USDA distinction for the birds. It means they have access to the outdoors. The USDA is cool even if that access is granted for only part of a chicken’s life. A free-range chicken doesn’t necessary spend time outside, ever. They are provided access to the outdoors, but just because they have the option doesn’t mean they use it.  After spending the first few weeks of life inside a barn, chickens suddenly provided with a portal to the great outdoors are unlikely to pass through it because, apparently, chickens are chicken.

“Free-roaming” is a distinction that has no legal definition and I can’t tell that it particularly means anything. I’ve also seen the term “barn-roaming” which implies, out of a cage but probably not in the sunshine.

“Pastured Poultry” or “pasture-raised” are also legal-less distinctions. But if you can confirm that your buying eggs produced by chickens living outside on pasture, buy them. These chickens scratch for grubs, worms and other yummies. Pastured poultry live the life we hope all chickens do.

There’s another reason to buy the pasture-raised egg. In a 2007 article, Mother Earth News compared the official USDA nutrient data for commercial eggs with eggs from hens raised on pasture and found that the latter typically contains:

1/3 less cholesterol
1/4 less saturated fat
2/3 more vitamin A
2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
3 times more vitamin E
7 times more beta carotene

The different nutrient levels are most likely the result of the diet and activity of the chickens producing the eggs.

The only bummer is they are usually the most expensive eggs on the market. But, by shelling out an extra shekel or two for eggs today, you could be avoiding future medical problems. Happy thought.

And now for the creepy stuff.

Beak Clipping.  Chickens housed in close quarters will peck each other to death.  To combat chicken cannibalism farmers clip the bird’s beaks off.  Beak clipping is an industry standard. Pastured poultry, living outside with lots of room don’t get so stressed out they think their neighbor chicken is dinner.

Forced Molting. “Forced” or “induced molting” is the practice of artificially provoking a flock to molt simultaneously. After laying continuously for a year, egg production levels drop off. Forcing a molt raises egg production and quality. The usual practice cause molting is to withdraw food from the flock for up to two weeks. Chickens get stressed out, lose their feathers, then regroup able to lay again. It seems barbaric to me… but the common alternative to forced molting is slaughter.

It’s gonna take a little research on your part to figure out which eggs are the real deal.  Use Cornucopia’s organic egg scorecard to see what’s available in your neighborhood.

If animal welfare is very important to you, the US National Humane Society has reviewed egg carton labels via that lens.

Now, go break some eggs.