So in part one of this post, Chickens and Eggs, I told you all the wonderful things about having your very own flock, including a personal supply of beautiful healthy eggs. But the truth is– even if the backyard chicken trend is growing, the vast majority of readers are still getting eggs at the supermarket. Herein lies the problem. As consumers become more aware of common practices in food production (inhumane conditions for animals, hormone/antibiotic use, etc.) the marketing industry tries to create the appeal of a healthy, fresh and natural product. Labels are vague and often misleading, presenting a dizzying array of choices.
Many of the labels are targeted to allay concerns for the treatment of the chickens. Cartons with lovely bucolic country scenes that say ” Cage-Free,” “Free Range” and “Free Roaming” might conjure images of chickens running around gleefully in the grass and sunshine, but it just ain’t so. With few exceptions it means they live inside a barn and are free to move around but still with little or no access to the outside. In many cases the outside “access” is a small door somewhere that the chickens never use because they’re not raised under natural conditions and probably don’t even know what it is, or what the outside is. Though this is better than the conventional factory raised chickens that are confined to a small space and can’t move at all, it’s a far cry from your grandmother’s barnyard bird. No sunny skies or cool wind in their feathers for these chickies.
Then there are designations that have to do with the nutritional quality of the eggs. “Natural” is simply a word used to make you feel better about what you are buying. There are no requirements on use of the word, which therefore makes it meaningless in terms of indicating nutrition or quality. You could call almost anything natural, including dirt, sand and poop. You’ll see the “Omega 3” label, which means that the chicken feed has been supplemented with flax seed or fish oil. There is no regulation on this and therefore no accountability to standards, so there’s no way of knowing how much the eggs actually contain. It’s the same with the label “No Antibiotics or Hormones Used.” (More on this here.)
The “Certified Organic” label actually does have some meaning, in that the term is regulated to meet certain criteria. Organic eggs are from uncaged chickens that have some access to the outdoors, are fed an organic vegetarian diet free of animal by-products, pesticides and genetically modified food as regulated by the USDA. However, beak cutting and forced molting is allowed, both issues in the humane treatment category.
This brings us to another point– vegetarian fed chickens? Fuhgeddaboutit! Chickens are omnivores, which means they eat lots of vegetables and proteins (think worms, bugs, slugs, gnats–yum!). Their production of one of nature’s most whole and perfect foods depends on their consumption of a complete diet. That the food industry would try to sell the public on the idea that taking animal proteins away will make the eggs healthier is just plain silly. Proponents of this concept will argue that the non-vegetarian commercial chicken will contain all sorts of nasty animal by-products. This is actually a good point, although it belies the truth of the bigger picture–that “vegetarian” chickens are the invention of a flawed food system, intended to take advantage of the misinformed consumer. But that’s just my opinion.
So what’s a shopper to do? If I’m standing in front of that vast egg display in the supermarket, I’m looking for the label that says Animal Welfare Approved or Certified Humane. These certifications require the chickens to live and grow outside year round and eat grass, bugs, etc. This is where the eggs get their beta carotene and Omega 3’s naturally, not from feed supplements. These arguably represent the highest of industry standards.
So, I hope this helps you narrow down all those egg buying options to the few real choices. And it goes without saying that the most guaranteed way to get eggs of superior taste and nutritional quality is to go to a source you can verify, a producer that follows the practices most important to you. Most folks these days have access to a farmer’s market, a co-op or a CSA, where you can know your grower. If you want the best product, this is your surest bet–unless of course, you want to get some chickens of your own!