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Behind the Egg Labels: What Do They Really Mean?

7/2/2009 4:57:41 PM

Tags: chickens, eggs

As we worked to teach our foster children simple living skills and boost their level of awareness, we found ourselves stumbling upon frightening tidbits of information that sent us first shivering, weeping, and thumb-sucking in the corners but then angrily protesting like marchers in a PETA parade (except we are clothed and omnivorous).

The following video contains disturbing footage and facts.  It may not be suitable for all audiences.  Please keep that in mind before watching.

Modern egg production practices seemed very Brave New World to me ... only less humane. At least in Brave New World the lower castes were periodically hosed with soma-gas to get high and thus forget how horrible their lives really were. No such luck for the factory-farmed egg laying hens.

But how do we keep from supporting these industries?  Labels?

Healthy chicken

Labels are so comforting, you know?  I feel instantly validated when I’m pushing a cart full of products plastered with labels declaring my support of free-range and organic animal products.  Labels are my friend, and I am guilty of trusting them.  Oh, and I should feel guilty because behind those labels lies a sad truth.

The only way to ensure that you are not actively supporting horrifying industrialized farming is to look for a local supplier.  Search for “pasture-raised” chicken eggs.  If you find eggs sold locally, ask to see the chickens and facility – they should welcome you with open arms.  Here’s the scoop:

  • Cage free. No legal meaning, but some egg farmers think the term is less misleading than “free range” (see below), which suggests happy hens pecking for grubs in the barnyard. If the barnyard is in Minnesota and it’s January, that ain’t gonna happen.
  • Free range, free roaming. Here’s the U.S. Department of Agriculture definition of these terms in its entirety: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” In other words, there has to be a door, and it has to be open at least part of the time. The chickens don’t necessarily have to take advantage, and they often don’t. UK researchers studying commercial poultry farms say only 15 percent of chickens who have the opportunity ever leave the henhouse. The secret, they say, is to plant shade trees in the barnyard, under which the chickens can shelter. (Supposedly this reminds them of their ancestral forests. Whatever.) Others say, let’s not make this too complicated–if you want the chickens to go outside the henhouse, put their food outside the henhouse. Not that “outside” is necessarily any Garden of Eden. In January 2003, Consumer Reports noted, “When we visited one free-range chicken farm a few years ago, we found a penned, 10-by-30-foot patch of dirt topped with chicken manure and grass.” The USDA hasn’t established criteria for the size of the “range” or the amount of space per bird, so things can get nearly as crowded outside as inside. Free-range chickens are typically debeaked, just like the caged kind, and the males are killed as chicks, since they don’t lay eggs.
  • Nutrient-enhanced. Claim to have higher levels of an omega-3 fatty acid, vitamin E, or protein because of ingredients added to feed. (Omega-3 content is boosted by adding flax, marine algae, or fish oils.)
  • Pasteurized. Eggs are placed in warm water to kill bacteria, then shells are waxed to prevent cross-contamination.  Such eggs are sometimes used in hospitals and nursing homes and are suitable for recipes that call for raw eggs.
  • White vs. brown. Color comes from the hen’s breed. In general, white hens with white earlobes lay white eggs, while hens with darker feathers and red earlobes lay brown eggs. Brown hens tend to be larger and need more feed, which can mean a slightly higher egg price. There’s no difference in flavor.
  • Organic. Laid by hens whose feed is made with minimal use of pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, and commercial fertilizers. The U.S. Department of Agriculture sets the standards. All eggs, organic or not, are free of hormones, and there’s no nutritional edge to organic.  This in no way implies that the chickens were not kept in concentrated confinement (read: battery cages).
  • Vegetarian. The laying hens were not given food containing animal proteins.  This also has nothing to do with the humane treatment of these beautiful animals (who are, naturally, omnivorous).
  • Pasture-raised. Hens eat feed from pastures but don’t always roam free.  They may be kept in pens that are moved around pastures or are free to roam the pasture within the fenced areas.  Backyard chickens often fall into this category (like our chickens, who roam around our back yard freely but are owned by non-commercial folks who won’t pay to have them certified as “free farmed” though they certainly qualify).
  • Free farmed. This term, which has been trademarked by the American Humane Association, means that a farm complies with AHA standards to ensure that its animals are free of hunger, unnecessary fear and pain, etc. Earning the “free farmed” label involves an initial inspection and annual recertification. It’s the most rigorous program I’ve found, but unless you visit the farms yourself you’re still basically taking things on faith.

Eggs in an egg carton

Labels to look for when searching for eggs from pasture-raised or "Free Farmed" poultry:

  • Certified Humane – This label is not easily obtained and by watching this video you will see why I am such a great fan of this certification.
  • American Humane Certified – “Free Farmed” label – with the understanding that all animals should be treated with care and respect… one of the first organizations to become an advocate for the rights of those who have no voice
  • Locally raised, farm fresh, beyond organic, chemical-free – Write down the information and contact them.  Request a tour and ask for their website.  If they don’t offer tours (which they may not do because they are swamped with work), conduct a drive-by investigation during the day.  Are there chickens hopping around an open field?  Do the chickens appear to be healthy and fluffy?  Is there adequate shelter, shade, and water provided

Chickens on Razor Family Farms

A recent article in Mother Earth News revealed the benefits of eating pasture-raised chicken eggs.  The numbers are staggering.  This is not the label on an overpriced GNC supplement — these are nutrition facts comparing eggs from pasture-roaming, bug-eating, dust-bathing, happy chickens to eggs from factory-farmed chickens.  Get ready:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • Two times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • Three times more vitamin E
  • Seven times more beta carotene
  • Three-to-six times more vitamin D

This is HUGE.  HUGE, I tell you!  If this is not the “ah-ha” moment where you thunk yourself in the head and go… “I have a yard, perhaps I should keep my own chickens” or “I should find me some pasture-raised chicken eggs” then I don’t know what else to say except to reach through the computer screen and thunk you on the head myself.  Don’t think I wouldn’t do it, too.  :)

Or if we lived closer to one another, I would force you to take a dozen eggs home to simply taste the difference.  It’s truly remarkable.  The eggs our chickens produce are phenomenal.  The flavor, texture, and color of the yolks… *sigh* I want to write a love poem just thinking about it.

Of course, as a GRIT reader, you have joined a rare and wonderful network of people who genuinely care about animals and land.  A quick scan through the reader blogs on this site and it is blaringly obvious that GRIT readers and staff wish to be good stewards of the earth.  We are the caretakers of creation... not simply farmers, hobbyists, gardeners, growers, or enthusiasts.

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Post a comment below.


12/3/2012 2:30:23 PM
Great article! We raise chickens also and I will never buy a storebought egg again. Lisa/

7/7/2009 3:25:11 PM
Nice post Lacy! We get so many complements from people who get our eggs. They rave about the difference, and how much better they are than "store bought", and the differences ARE staggering!

Razor Family Farms
7/7/2009 8:29:43 AM
Hi Dawn! Having seen photos of your operation -- I think you do a lovely job with your birds. They get plenty of fresh air, have lots of room to scratch and loll about, have access to quality foods (bugs, greens, etc.), and have adequate shelter. Our birds are kept in a fenced lot (our backyard and pasture). The fence is more to keep other creatures out than it is to keep them in. You are doing the right thing by keeping them safe from predators, in my opinion. Blessings! Lacy

Paul Gardener
7/6/2009 2:04:15 PM
Great Post Lacy! Couldn't agree more. We love our girls and we especially love there wonderfully tasty eggs. I get lots of questions of whether mine are free range, or cage free or this or that based on what people see on the "labels" that your talking about. I just like to say their Farm-fresh and they don't eat anything I don't know about and that's how I like it. We can't really range ours like I'd like yet (I've been slacking on building a tractor for them...) but they get lots of greens from all the garden clipping and prunings so it's a close second I guess. Kerry~ I'm only on a 1/4 acre in the suburbs and I have chickens and grew over 500 lbs of food last year. The country is where you make it. Don't wait for conditions to change, be the change! Get out and Grow on... It is possible! Thanks again Lacy! Paul Gardener~

Julie Muytoy
7/5/2009 4:05:44 PM
Wow, I didn't know all of this. Thank you for sharing this wealth of information.

7/5/2009 6:47:49 AM
I can remember the first time I had a "real" egg... a little girl came to our mom's group with her pet hen's eggs to sell. Of course, I had to support the budding entrepeneur and bought a dozen ~ thinking all the while, "What's the difference, REALLY!" I took the carton of eggs home and commented to my kids how they were all different sizes and shapes. I opened my fridge and took out the StuffMart eggs that said "cage-free" and decided to have a little taste test to "prove" to my kids there wasn't a difference. We scrambled two eggs from each carton in different pans. We instantly noticed the little girl's eggs were noticeably more orange-yolked. Then, the moment of truth... we tasted her eggs... fresh! buttery! rich! I thought, "Yeah, but how much better???" We tasted the StuffMart eggs... WHAAAT?!?! Cardboardy! Flat! Strange Aftertaste! I've been eating these for HOW long and never noticed how weird they taste?? Amazing what we get used to without realizing it. You're right, Lacy. The difference is staggering, especially when you taste them side by side. NOW... with the horrible way the poor commercial chickens are treated, wouldn't you rather buy eggs from a little girl who loves and holds her chickens and calls them all by name? I know I would! Thanks for the eye-opener and good explanations. ~HeatherJ

7/4/2009 1:12:24 PM
the more things i hear and read, the more i wish i could move my family out to the country and grow our own food and raise our own animals. great article!

7/4/2009 12:21:43 PM
A very good article. Unfortunately our chickens have to be in a pen. The two who kept going over the fence were quickly carried off by coyotes. Ours do however spend much of the winter outside even with it being -20˚C as long as the sun is shining. They don't like to step in snow, but will slowly eat a circle from their door and will make it bigger and bigger. We have also thrown some straw in so they are happy with that and move out further. I think the fresh air goes a long way in having happy hens too. And all our hens take advantage of going outside whenever they can; it is just natural and we never put their food outside.

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