How To Choose The Best Eggs

What do egg labels mean?Certified organic, free range, cage free. There are so many options when buying eggs, but what do they mean, other than a steep price premium? Author Eden Canon takes a closer look at labels, in search of a healthy, ethically produced egg.

Eggs, we love them. Over 75 billion eggs are eaten each year in the US alone. They are versatile and nutritious, and when the hens are raised ethically, eggs are a source of animal protein even vegetarians can feel good about.

But a stroll through the egg section of your local market can be bewildering, not to mention the sticker shock. Free range, certified organic, cage free, omega-3 DHA enhanced, BC SPCA certified, animal welfare approved, certified humane raised, American humane certified, Freedom Food…just to list a few. Confused yet?

One thing is obvious. An egg can only be as healthy as the hen who laid it, so to find a healthy egg, we need to figure out what makes a healthy chicken. Here are the top three wishes of any self respecting chicken:

  1. A warm, clean and dry shelter to roost in at night and when it’s really cold or storming outside. Like just about every other living being, hens get aggressive when crowded, so there should be plenty of space, with boxes for making a nest to lay eggs and also perches—because chicken feet can be damaged without the proper sized perch.
  2. Fresh water and nutritious, organic feed to supplement foraging. Hold the drugs, chemicals and fillers, please.
  3. A pasture to spend days in. Chickens need to scratch, preen and dust themselves in a social group. They also like to spend their days foraging for grass, plants and seeds. You may have mistakenly thought of chickens as vegetarians—in fact they are omnivores. Avid hunters—chickens will chase down insects and gobble up worms and grubs whenever they have the chance.

A trip down the shopping isle

Now we know the basics of what makes a chicken healthy. Let’s take a look at some of these labels to see how close they get.

Cheap eggs

First up, conventionally raised supermarket eggs. These are the cheapest and they are sold under many different names, but don’t let that fool you. In fact, there are a handful of corporations who produce most of the eggs, and sell them under myriad different labels. The labels may imply that there is a family farm involved, with friendly pastoral names and deceptive images of farms or barns.

In factory farms hens spend their entire lives indoors with tens of thousands of other chickens in dark warehouses called grower houses. Many of these are battery cage operations, where a hen lives her entire life in a tiny wire cage without enough room to even stretch her wings. These wire cages are lined up in rows and stacked from floor to ceiling.

Operations that do not use battery cages (which are illegal in some places, such as California) may still raise tens of thousands of chickens in dark, overcrowded warehouses, providing what an HSUS report on the chicken industry noted was a living space the size of a sheet of paper for each chicken.

They cannot forage or hunt in this situation, so they are given feed that often contains corn, soy, and other grains, often of genetically modified origin, and cultivated with the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides—along with meat and bone meal.  These meat byproducts are rendered from chickens and other animals (in some cases, including animals from animal shelters).  While chickens are by nature omnivores, feeding rendered chickens back to chickens is a dubious practice.

The ammonia from such overcrowded indoor living is often so strong that it causes constant respiratory infections in the birds, as well as blisters and other skin infections. On a side note, ammonia at these levels often causes people who work in intensive egg producing operations to suffer the same maladies.

Well, we were warned that hens get cranky when crowded, and with this much stress they resort to aggressive pecking. This aberrant behavior is brought on by extreme conditions, such as overcrowding and excessive competition for food, water and perches. To solve this, their beaks are painfully sheared or burned off.

Hens become sick and diseased due to their living conditions. Commercial farmers attempt to remedy this by including a constant supply of low dose antibiotics in their feed. A study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University and Arizona State University found that conventionally raised chickens contained residues of antidepressants, pain killers, antibiotics and caffeine, among other things.

A hen will normally go through a fallow cycle where she does not lay eggs. During this time, she is storing up nutrients to replenish her body. This is obviously inconvenient for intensive egg production and so the hens are shocked into starting another cycle by a process called forced moulting. To achieve this, they are starved of food and water for up to 18 days, during which they lose up to 25% of their body weight.

A laying hen might lay more than 250 eggs in a year, her body losing more calcium to form egg shells than she can assimilate from her diet. To produce this astounding and number of eggs, she uses 30 times more calcium than is found in her entire skeleton. After a year of egg production, her brittle, calcium depleted bones sometimes shatter when she is handled. She is labeled ‘spent’ and is sent off to slaughter.

As is the case with every animal who is a mother, if she lives in stressful conditions that compromise her health—such as the overcrowded, unsanitary, antibiotic fueled living conditions of a commercial grower house—her body will work to preserve her health and not that of her egg, drawing nutrients from its production to safeguard her own welfare.  This type of egg production produces thin shelled, pale yolked eggs, signifying nutrient deficiency. Some producers add dyes to their feed to disguise the pale yolkes.

If it takes a healthy chicken to make a healthy egg, we’re going to have to put this dozen back and keep looking.  There’s got to be something better.

Certified organic eggs

Eggs sold under the certified organic label can represent a better option.  Producers are not allowed to use battery cages, force birds into molting through starvation or administer antibiotics.  Chickens are provided certified organic feed, eliminating their exposure to pesticides and herbicides.

Organic regulations require hens be given access to the outdoors.  However, the type of outdoor area provided, the length of time birds may have outdoors, and whether the outside space is big enough to fit all animals comfortably at once, is not specified.  Furthermore, requiring that animals have outdoor access says nothing about the state of the birds’ indoor housing.

The Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group, conducted a report called Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture which researched organic egg production in the United States over the course of two years.

The report stated that, “Unfortunately, our research found that most [organic] industrial-scale producers are currently confining tens of thousands of hens inside henhouses, commonly only offering tiny concrete or wooden porches as ‘outdoor access’—and getting away with it.”

In an article released by the Cornucopia Institute summarizing the report’s findings, co-director and senior farm policy analyst Mark Kastel commented, “After visiting over 15% of the certified egg farms in the United States, and surveying all name-brand and private-label industry marketers, it’s obvious that a high percentage of the eggs on the market should be labeled ‘produced with organic feed’ rather than bearing the USDA-certified organic logo.”

There are two kinds of certified organic farms: those that adhere to the spirit of organic, using best agricultural and humane practices above and beyond organic regulations to ensure the safety of the animals as well as preserving the environment—and what has become known as commodity organic—large intensive producers who do the minimum possible to gain organic certification.

Outdoor access: yes, but what this means is undefined
Indoor conditions: no battery cages; nest boxes, perches and bedding provided
Feed: no antibiotics, hormones or mammalian/avian protein; all feed is certified organic
Antibiotics: not allowed
Forced molting and debeaking: debeaking allowed “only when necessary”; forced molting is not allowed

Free range

According to the Animal Raising Claims in the Labeling of Meat and Poultry Products report released by the Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), “The FSIS approves ‘free range’ raising claims in the labeling of poultry products if the producer demonstrates that the birds were allowed continuous, free access to the outside for over 51 percent of their lives.”

But farmers who raise certified free range chickens are divided on whether the label should be granted even if the birds never take advantage of the “allowed access outdoors.”  Some argue that the option alone should constitute grounds for receiving the label while others argue that it should be verified that birds actually use the outside area.

Outdoor access: yes, for at least 51% of their lives; standards for outdoor access are undefined
Indoor conditions: not specified
Feed: not specified
Antibiotics: not specified
Forced molting and debeaking: not specified

Cage free & free run

If you are like many people, the labels ‘cage free’ and ‘free run’ evoke an image of happy hens pecking about in a pasture.  Not necessarily so.  In most cases these laying hens live packed into dark grower houses—the only concession is that they do not spend their lives in battery cages. Beak trimming and forced molting are still commonly endured by hens raised under these labels, and the label does not cover any other aspects, such as quality of feed or drug use.

Outdoor access:not specified
Indoor conditions: no cages
Feed: not specified
Antibiotics: not specified
Forced molting and debeaking: not specified

What do egg labels mean?

 BC SPCA certified

This third party certification, available in some parts of Canada, regulates many aspects of hens’ lives, including access to food and water, health, sanitation, transport and slaughter.

Outdoor access: none specified
Indoor conditions: no battery cages; nest boxes, perches and bedding provided
Feed: no antibiotics, hormones or mammalian/avian protein
Antibiotics: allowed for specific cases of illness
Forced molting and debeaking: debeaking allowed “only when necessary”; no mention of forced molting

Animal Welfare Approved

These hens live in hen houses with access to the outdoors.  Cages, beak trimming and forced molting are prohibited.  Slaughter practices must minimize stress and suffering, and breeds of birds that have undergone genetic selection to the point that their welfare is negatively affected are prohibited. Flocks are limited to 500 birds.

The regulations are comprehensive and rigorous, covering everything from handling hatchlings to euthanizing birds that are in pain with little chance of recovery.

Outdoor access: yes; each chicken is allowed a minimum of 4 square feet (.37 sq m) of range and foraging area; continuous access to foraging, weather permitting, is required for birds from 4 weeks of age onwards
Indoor conditions: no cages; dust bathing, nest boxes, perches and clean bedding provided; 1.8 square feet (.16 sq m) of indoor space per bird;
Feed: no sub-theraputic antibiotics; no hormones; no animal products, except for dairy, are allowed
Antibiotics: allowed for specific cases of illness
Forced molting and debeaking: not allowed

Certified Humane

Similar to Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane hens are never force molted or debeaked.  Both schemes provide enough indoor space, free of any cages, for hens to move about, dust bath and perch, prohibit the use of antibiotics in feed, and require slaughter practices that minimize suffering.  However, Certified Humane does not require outdoor access. Somewhat perplexingly, mammalian and avian products are not allowed in their food, but eggs are.

Outdoor access: not required
Indoor conditions: no cages; dust bathing, nest boxes, perches and clean bedding provided; hens must have sufficient room to stand, turn around and stretch their wings; 1.5 square feet provided per hen
Feed: no sub-theraputic antibiotics; no hormones or growth promoters; no mammalian or avian derived ingredients, except for egg or egg products, are allowed
Antibiotics: allowed for specific cases of illness
Forced molting and debeaking: debeaking is not allowed, but beak trimming (which removes less of the beak than debeaking) is allowed; toe clipping (cutting of the tips of the toes) is prohibited; forced molting is not allowed

Freedom Food

Overseen by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) of England and Wales, Freedom Food certification requires that producers provide certain ‘freedoms’ to their animals:

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain, injury or disease
  • Freedom to express normal behavior
  • Freedom from fear and distress

Regulations cover aspects such as indoor space, feed, perches, dust bathing, ventilation, handling, transportation and slaughter. Up to 4,000 birds may be housed together.

Outdoor access: not required
Indoor conditions: no cages; dust bathing, nest boxes, perches and clean bedding provided; hens must have sufficient room to stand, turn around and stretch their wings; 0.11 square meters (1.18 sq ft) provided per hen
Feed: no sub-theraputic antibiotics; no hormones or growth promoters; no mammalian or avian derived ingredients are allowed
Antibiotics: allowed
Forced molting and debeaking: forced molting is not allowed; beak trimming is allowed in the first 24 hours of life using infrared equipment; up to1/3 of a bird’s beak can be removed; after the first 24 hours of life, beak trimming may be done with the approval of a veterinarian

100% Vegetarian Feed

This label ensures that hens are not fed on animal byproducts that are found in many conventional feeds. The original outbreak of mad cow disease uncovered some unsavory ingredients in livestock feed—of particular concern was the feeding of same species byproducts; in other words, cannibalism.  Using an all vegetarian feed effectively addresses this concern, but chickens are notably not vegetarians.  Unlike herbivores such as cows, sheep and goats—chickens are omnivores whose natural diet consists of bugs and grubs, as well as grain, fruits and vegetables.

Outdoor access: not specified
Indoor conditions: not specified
Feed: no animal products allowed
Antibiotics: not specified
Forced molting and debeaking: not specified

Pasture-raised

Pasture-raised hens experience a lifestyle in which they can express their natural behavior of exploration, dust bathing, socializing, and foraging. Since they are not packed into unbearably close living conditions, they do not resort to aggressive pecking—hence, there is no need to slice off their beaks.

Although ‘pasture-raised’ is not legally defined, many farmers who practice this farming style incorporate certified organic practices into their poultry raising, such as using feed that was not cultivated with the use of synthetic pesticide or fertilizer—and either abstaining from, or rarely using, antibiotics.  These hens are also raised in smaller flocks, in comparison to conventional grower houses which can contain 85,000 hens or more, according to the Cornucopia Institute.

Mark McAfee, dairy farmer and owner of Organic Pastures, sells eggs from his pasture-raised chickens which are raised alongside his dairy cows.

It’s a natural, self-integrated system, where the chickens follow the cows out in the pasture.  Their eggs are beautiful and the chickens do really, really well. As a result we have a very bright orange egg yolk that people just go nuts for.  They’re high in Omega-3s, vitamin E, vitamin A.

Mark McAffee, Organic Pastures

A hen’s diet is an important factor in the quality of the egg.  On the pasture, hens are allowed to follow their natural instinct to forage and thus consume a variety of grasses, seeds, larva, insects, etc., which results in a healthier, more diversified diet.

Eggs laid by pasture-raised hens are the ideal, matching that image of a healthy chicken living the good life on pasture.  Rather than being granted access to the outdoors by a line of regulation—which has been interpreted in some of the most laughable ways by unscrupulous producers—pasture-raised birds actually live outdoors, which removes all ambiguity about whether or not they go out, or whether the space they are provided is a concrete porch.

The caveat is that there is no third party certification to validate the label.  It seems with all eggs, even certified organic ones, the only way to ensure the conditions in which your eggs were laid are healthy and humane is to take the time to find trustworthy local producers.

This video gives excellent examples of what to look for in buying eggs, and how some organic egg farms are not what you’d imagine.

How to choose the best eggs

The best way to ensure how your eggs, and the hens that laid them, were treated is to source from local, small scale farmers.  Unlike large egg producers who sell their eggs under a variety of different brands, there is more accountability for a farmer who sells under his own brand to provide healthy, safe, and humanely produced eggs.

Supporting small scale agriculture is also important because, as it stands today with such a small group of industrial agribusinesses supplying the nation’s food, if a product like eggs were contaminated it would not only affect the health of hundreds of people but also result in the slaughter of thousands of birds which may or may not be infected.

Furthermore, as it has been shown with terms like organic and free range, labeling can be confusing and regulations can be interpreted in a range of ways.  If you are able to buy eggs from a local supplier at farmers’ markets, you can ask the producer any questions you may have about the farming methods they use to produce eggs. Take advantage of food producers who welcome questions about their products and give clear, unambiguous answers.

When asked about what consumers should look for when buying nutritious and humanely produced eggs, Mark McAfee responded, “They’re looking for the egg yolk color and they’re looking for the integrity of the farmer.”

“The truth is the truth—it isn’t some variation that we try to plant in somebody’s brain.  It’s actually cows and chickens on pastures.  And that is something we’re very proud of—that we have full transparency here and that people can check out what I am saying is actually true.”

In the absence of a local, pasture-based farmer, you may have to rely on labels when buying from a grocery store.  Animal Welfare Approved is a comprehensive and rigorous certification.  A local egg supplier who is certified organic is another good option, though a little more research is necessary to uncover which brands are commodity organic—operating at the low end of the threshold—and which practice higher welfare standards, offering their birds a pasture, not a porch.


City Chicks: Keeping Micro-flocks of Chickens as Garden Helpers, Compost Makers, Bio-reyclers, and Local Food Producers

The Chicken Whisperer’s Guide to Keeping Chickens: Everything You Need to Know . . . and Didn’t Know You Needed to Know About Backyard and Urban Chickens

A Chicken in Every Yard: The Urban Farm Store’s Guide to Chicken Keeping

Free-Range Chicken Gardens: How to Create a Beautiful, Chicken-Friendly Yard

Chickens In Your Backyard: A Beginner’s Guide


One Response to How To Choose The Best Eggs

  1. Andrew Gunther May 2012 at 02:20

    Thank you so much for your review. The farmers in the program take great pride in there work and we are privileged to attest to there outcomes.

    Andrew

    Reply

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