She was not like other chickens. She didn’t fight my grasp or spurn my affection. She sat in my lap like a well-fed cat, tucked up her claws, puffed out her feathers, lowered her eye lids and – I swear – started to purr. Not exactly like a cat’s purr, muffled but audible, but a silent purr, more chicken-like.
With the race on to sell the most popular American breakfast food, marketers are working hard to persuade us that their eggs come from blissfully free and happy chickens. “Free-range” is vying for the same attention “organic” has received, while “pastured” is the “it” claim of the moment.
What does it all mean.
(By the way, this post is Part II, so if you’ve not read it, see Part I: If you eat eggs, blame Freud, or – just keep on reading…)
Decoding the Egg
Grade (as in Grade A) – If there are more than 3000 hens, the eggs must be inspected by the USDA, but grading is optional and costs money. The grade is based on egg size, quality of the shell and visual quality of the inside (when held up to light). It says nothing about how the hens were raised.
Color of the Shell – Eggs were always white, now they’re always brown. Chickens with white earlobes (they have ears!) lay white eggs (or light blue eggs in the case of Araucanas) and chickens with red earlobes, lay brown eggs (with a few exceptions). The only way a brown egg is any healthier than a white egg, is if the hen that laid the brown egg was healthier than the hen that laid the white egg.
Color of the Yolk -The depth of color in the yolk is influenced by diet. More bugs, (healthy) food scraps and grass, usually means darker yolks. They can also be darkened by adding marigold or other “darkening” plants to the hen’s diet.
All Vegetarian Feed – Chickens are not vegetarian. If they had a say, they’d request meat (worms and bugs) along with grass and grains. This label simply refers to the fact that the feed does not contain animal by-products.
Omega-enriched: The hens are fed flax, fish or other supplements to raise Omega 3 levels. You’ll rarely see this with truly pasture raised hens who get their Omegas the old fashioned way – from bugs and grass.
Farm-fresh: Doesn’t mean a thing.
Cage-free: Simply means they are free of their cage, but they may not be free of a life of cramped, indoor living conditions.
Free-range: This “range” that they cavort about freely, is unlikely to be a verdant pasture but could be an outdoor concrete slab. Moreover, the door leading to freedom may be discrete and the chickens, not even aware of its existence. (Access to fresh air is required, actual fresh air time, is not.) Another fact that suggests these hens are not roaming with much freedom, is that most “free range” hens have clipped beaks, which is done in order to avoid (literal) blood baths that occur amongst close-quartered hens.
Organic: The term covers issues around feed, medication and animal welfare. Only organic feed, no antibiotics unless sick, must not be in cages and must have access to outdoors. (See free-range.)
Pastured: Suggests they spend much of their time roaming about a large outdoor area foraging for bugs and grass. Many farmers market eggs fall into this category and some stores sell brands with this claim. Be aware that “pasture raised” does not mean fed organic grains. The term is not regulated, so check the brand’s website for their definition.
Humane Certification: You might see “Certified Humane Raised &Handled“. This is a pretty good indication of either pasture raised hens or at least hens raised in a humane manner.
Another fascinating difference between factory raised eggs versus small farm eggs is this: when a hen lays an egg, a secretion coats the egg (the “bloom”) to protect it from bacteria until it’s ready to hatch (in several weeks). Factories use a chemical wash to remove the bloom, making the porous shell far more vulnerable to salmonella (though they do add a thin film of oil which may protect it somewhat). Eggs from small farms maintain the natural coating, which means they are not only naturally protected from bacteria, but can be unrefrigerated for a month without spoiling – not so with factory eggs.
Does lifestyle affect the egg?
Some studies have shown that pastured chickens do lay more nutritious eggs (higher Omega3, Vitamin E etc.). Nothing has been conclusively proven but I can’t help feel that a hen who’s been allowed to play in the dirt, will produce healthier eggs than one who’s never experienced the joy of yanking a worm from the earth.
I buy my eggs from the farmers market where I occasionally see feathers in the carton – a sure sign that a chicken’s been there.
What can you share with us about eggs?
Click here for more details on eggs from the USDA.
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