(Wow, time flies when you’re working on Holiday things and indoor crafts instead of tending the garden! Didn’t mean for two months to slip by without an update!)
This holiday season, I did as I always do: I baked and cooked myself into a complete frenzy. Every year I throw a big party for friends and family, and as part of it, I cook good food and confections and baked goods and feed everyone until they waddle out the door, and then some. And this year, I had my girls to provide fresh eggs for absolutely everything I did! And oh, do they make a difference. Between those and my discovery this year of King Arthur Flours, I think I did about as well as I’ve ever done at most of my goodies, especially the divinity…which is just egg whites and sugar to begin with!
But if you don’t have ready access to hard-working chickens in your own back yard, how do you ensure you have the freshest, healthiest, best eggs possible? With all the choices on the market today, it’s something of a mystery to most shoppers. Some of the labels you might think actually meant something, like “cage-free”, don’t really amount to much.
Where Eggs Come From
First, you should know how the majority of large-scale egg farmers operate. In general, large-scale farms (like those that produce your basic, uninteresting dozen eggs you’d pick up at a store) use battery cages. This means the birds are stuffed in wire cages, inside a building with no fresh air or sunshine, up to 8 hens in a single cage. They have no room to lay down, stretch their wings, nest, or perch. They have a mere 67 square inches (smaller than a single sheet of letter-size paper) per bird. And that’s how they live, day in, day out. In addition, many producers cut off the beaks of their hens to prevent the pecking that would likely result from these cramped conditions. Some also regulate egg production by forcing the birds to molt on the farmer’s schedule, by withholding food. This weakens the birds’ immune systems, and actually causes some to starve to death.
Sounds great, doesn’t it?
And what happens to the male chicks that hatch out of the system? Given that about half a clutch of eggs will result in male chickens, that’s a lot of boys. Boys don’t lay eggs. Where do they go? You might think they’re raised to adulthood for meat, but it isn’t so. In general, they are gassed to death, which although sad, seems to me to be at least painless. One of the more gruesome practices is the newer technique of pitching the baby males into a large grinder, which results in (theoretically) instantaneous death. Death by garbage disposal. Neat.
Note: While most males in the egg producing farms are killed, about 2/3 of females in the meat producing farms are also killed, so they don’t get off the hook either.
So. If you decide as I did that those conditions are deplorable, and decide to support a more humane way of getting your eggs, what do you do? Of course some of us decide to raise our own birds, but not everyone has the space, time, money, or inclination to do so, and that’s fine. Where do you go to buy eggs, then? How do you decipher the Egg Lingo? This guide isn’t all-inclusive, but maybe it’ll help some:
Age of Eggs
Most eggs will keep 5-7 weeks, even when purchased from the grocery store. Commercially produced eggs are usually washed, which removes their protective bloom and can in some cases drive bacteria into the eggs themselves. However, they’re also usually sanitized, which farm eggs are typically not. Mother Earth News did a study in the 70′s on unwashed farm eggs, and showed that they last in the refrigerator for literally months. Problem is…how old are the eggs that reach you at the store? Look at the carton. USDA graded eggs are marked with the Julian Date, which is the day of the year on which they were packed. It’ll be the last three numbers of a serial code which may include a code for the packing facility. 001 is January 1st, and 365 is December 31st. So if you buy a carton of eggs on February 3rd, and the number on the carton is 003, you know your eggs are about 1 month old before they reached you. If the eggs also have a “Sell By” date, the date will be within 45 days of the pack date, by regulation. After that, you still have 3-5 weeks even by conservative government safety measures to use your eggs.
Me, I rarely have eggs more than a couple of weeks old total in my fridge.
Omega-3 or Enriched Eggs
Changes in the nutritional content of eggs is generally brought about by a change in the feed. Hens with access to their own forage and the ability to eat bugs, weeds, and tidbits of their own choosing have recently been shown to have higher nutritional content in their eggs than hens fed strictly a commercially-produced diet. And claims from egg producers about the nutritional content of their eggs should be viewed rather skeptically. In general, asking the person selling the product for proof is not the best course of action; find third-party testing sources, like consumer advocates, as they don’t have a vested interest in the results.
By the way, the color of the egg is determined solely by the breed of the chicken. In the US, most commercial egglaying hens are of a breed that produces white eggs. White eggs are not bleached or altered to achieve that color, and they are no more or less healthy than brown eggs laid by hens raised under the same conditions. I do personally find them to be much less interesting than the rainbow of browns and blues produced by my girls, but that’s just aesthetics.
“Other” Living Conditions For Hens
So after reading about the cramped battery cages, “cage-free” is better, right? Well, marginally. The hens can probably walk around and stretch their wings, maybe lay down, and interact with more birds. However, they are usually kept in giant warehouses with no access to outside and no fresh air or sunshine, and no population cap. They can be fed pretty much anything including antibiotics, pesticides, drugs, or unhealthy animal byproducts. The cutting of beaks and the forced molting are still allowed. Worst, there’s no regulatory agency checking to insure eggs marked “cage-free” actually come from uncaged hens.
These girls are a step up again. They can walk and stretch, lay down, and interact with one another. They usually have some access to outside. But like the cage-free girls, there’s no regulatory agency ensuring these standards are met, and there is no actual requirement for access to the outdoors. Still no feed restrictions, and beak cutting and forced molting are still allowed.
Certified Organic Eggs
This label is actually regulated and earned from third-party auditors (not the farmer, and not the government.) They are required to be uncaged with access to the outdoors, and to be fed an organic vegetarian feed free of antibiotics, drugs, pesticides, and animal byproducts. However, the amount and duration of the outdoor access isn’t regulated…a small door accessing a tiny yard far too small for even a fraction of the flock is acceptable. There are no regulations capping population density, though because they’re not allowed to use antibiotics, the farmers usually keep the density much lower than for situations where they can use antibiotics. Beak cutting and forced molting? Still okey-dokey.
Certified Humane Eggs
Here the girls must be uncaged, but may or may not have outdoor access. They must have enough room to perform their normal, natural functions such as stretching, preening, roosting, and dust bathing. There is actually a population density cap on these, and the farm is also required to have a certain number of nest boxes and perches. As with organic their feed must be vegetarian and free of antibiotics, hormones, and animal byproducts. Forced molting? Not allowed. Beak cutting, however, is still allowed. Wilcox Farms and Stiebrs Farms both comply with this label. Certified by a third party.
Animal Welfare Approved Eggs
Hens must be uncaged and have continuous access to the outdoors. There are standards for population density, perch availability and nest boxes. Diet as in Organic and Certified Humane eggs. Forced molting and beak cutting are finally a no-no with this label. Bad news? There are no participating producers that currently sell to supermarkets, so you’re probably looking for farmer’s markets or direct from the farmers on these eggs.
United Egg Producers Certified Eggs
Most egg producers in the US comply with this program, where forced molting is actually disallowed. Certified by third party vendors. No forced molting is about the only difference between this and “regular” eggs, though, as they can still be kept stacked in cages with only 67 square inches of personal space, and have their beaks removed.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I’m not a vegetarian, nor an activist, and I don’t have any particular agenda. That said, I do think people should be aware of where their food comes from and the effects that result from choices they make at the grocery store. Some people choose to forego eggs altogether, seeing it as a violation of the chickens’ animal welfare, and that’s fine. I’m not one of them. Some people choose to raise their own chickens. Some will learn to carefully read labels and weigh factors before choosing eggs. Some will support local farmers or neighbors with chickens. And of course many people will continue to purchase the mass-produced eggs that have become a cheap source of nutrition and protein, and that’s also fine. Some folks have neither the economic luxury nor the geographic ability to find anything else, either, and they shouldn’t be vilified for their limited choices. But that’s really the key: knowing your choices, knowing the economic and biological reality, and just thinking about the world around you instead of blindly consuming.