Eggs Here and Abroad

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Kristen Frederickson

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Living as I do on both sides of the pond, I have been fascinated to track the way the egg has survived and thrived in our two cultures. Both cultures, of course, regulate and monitor the way in which eggs are produced and graded. Sadly, in my opinion, the United States lags behind Europe in general (and the UK in particular) in its interest in the living conditions of the hen. Let me explain.

The United States Department of Agriculture does not specify any regulations as to the living conditions of laying hens. Eggs are graded AA, A or B strictly on the condition of the egg ITSELF, the quality of the yolk, white and shell. Nearly all eggs offered in American supermarkets are Grade A, with AA occasionally appearing. Grade B is nearly always restricted to industrial use.

I find it terribly depressing that USDA regulations apply almost only to the slaughter and transport of a chicken, not its life. All USDA certification standards of safety have to do with a dead bird, and its implications for its human consumer. European laws are evolving more quickly to reflect consumers’ interest in humanely-treated animals.

On an optimistic note, there exists in the United States the United Egg Producers, a group offering a voluntary program of certification. In July 2011, the UEP and the Humane Society announced a joint venture to propose legislation in the US Congress to regulate the treatment of hens in ways similar to the European standards. Americans are becoming (albeit slowly) more interested in the lives laying hens lead and are asking for clearer guidelines as to the living conditions of hens.

There are also laws now defining eggs as “Certified Organic.” In the United States, “organic” egg production means that the flock may not live in cages, must have access to the outdoors and are fed organic feed, but this designation is often played out in a very stingy way, with egg producers attaching small porches to the hen houses and counting them as “outdoors.” (You can read more about that here)

In the European Union, of which the UK is a member, eggs are graded by the hen farming method. So-called “battery” hen living is now illegal in some countries, but “caged” eggs are still produced and sold as the lowest-priced supermarket option. Other options are “free-range,” which must conform to specific and closely-inspected standards of space, daylight access to open-air runs and no more than 2500 hens per hectare (about 2.5 acres) of ground, with shelters and drinking troughs evenly distributed. Further up the chain of animal treatment are “organic” eggs, which refers to the feed offered to the birds. Highest of all designations is “free-range organic,” which speaks to both the living conditions and the feed of the animals.

Of course, it all comes with a cost. Literally, in the case of poultry regulations. The European Commission’s most recent economic report asserts that it costs .98 euros to produce a dozen free-range eggs, compared with .66 euros for battery eggs. This revelation has caused massive concern among European farmers and food producers. Will consumers be willing to absorb it by paying more for their eggs? Will there be enough eggs to feed us all?

Then there is The Great Unanswerable Question about eggs. Should you refrigerate them, or not? This again points up cultural differences between Americans and Europeans.

Nearly every American I know refrigerates eggs. Why? Partly out of habit, partly because the government tells us to, and partly (I think mostly) because when we buy them, we buy them from a refrigerator. Then we get them home, and look! There’s a little drawer with egg-shaped depressions in it, right in the door. Clearly, eggs go in the fridge.

Not so in Europe. Eggs are nearly universally sold on supermarket shelves, usually next to the sugar and flour, which makes sense. So when we bring them home, most of us leave them OUT on the counter, away from sources of heat or direct sunlight. Is this mad? I can report that I have been storing my eggs on the counter now for six years and have never had a problem.

The only Americans I could find who do not refrigerate their eggs are, interestingly, egg producers. My friend Lauren and my farmer’s market friend Jill, each store their eggs in ambient temperatures at home, and in Jill’s case, she sells them from a nice folding table at the market. Their viewpoints? “If it’s never been refrigerated, don’t. If it has, keep it there.” Certainly the quality of eggs is not helped by constant switching from one temperature to another.

Annette Barrell, South Somerset Food Safety Officer, told me that “Current guidance from the FSA advises that consumers/businesses should store eggs in the fridge, although there is confusion for purchasers when all the supermarkets tend to sell/store eggs for sale at ambient temperatures.” What does that mean, then? I think it means the government is erring on the side of safety, but can’t come up with a real reason to refrigerate eggs, since shops need not. If British people do refrigerate their eggs, it is likely in reaction to former UK Health Minister Edwina Currie’s claim in 1988 that most of the UK’s egg supply was contaminated with Salmonella. To which Ministry of Agriculture ministers responded with the statistic that in the consumption of over 30 million eggs in 1988, there had been 26 reported outbreaks of salmonella. Hardly “most eggs.” In 1998 the British Lion Quality mark was launched, and every British egg bearing the mark (about 85% of all produced) has been vaccinated against Salmonella and has markings on the box enabling full traceability of hens, eggs and feed.

And, finally, we come to taste. Here in my London kitchen, I unpacked three boxes of different eggs from Waitrose, a fairly upscale English supermarket. Then, because Waitrose does not sell “caged” eggs, I brought some home from Tesco, a slightly less upscale market. Then I brought home my farmers market eggs, one “free-range” and the other “organic.” In a blind test (the eggs were marked on the bottom with letters corresponding to their boxes), I soft-boiled one of each for John and me, and hard-boiled one of each for Avery (she doesn’t eat things that wobble). No butter, no salt.

I can report that the caged eggs were unacceptable compared to the rest. Not only were their yolks rather gray, but their consistency was rubbery and the flavour left a metallic aftertaste. Done, no more caged eggs. After all, how can a hen lay tasty eggs from a miserable life?

But the rest of the results were a surprise. Among the five choices of “free-range” eggs (whose prices fluctuated about 35%), we could not tell the difference. The most expensive eggs had the darkest yolks, and were the smallest (British eggs typically vary somewhat in size within a box, and often still have feathers sticking to them). All the eggs were creamy, fresh and delicious, but the dark yolks did not taste any better.

Is there any reason, then, to buy the most expensive? Only if you feel that expensive eggs mean a nicer life for the hens, and if you buy the text inside the box, that could be true. The most expensive eggs came from a box proclaiming “free to range on green pastures from dawn to dusk, leading to a natural and happy life.”

Egg-cellent.

Photo Credit: Avery Curran