Why is buying a dozen eggs so confusing
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JANE THERESE
Cage free. Pastured. Organic. Free range. Certified humane. Natural—What does it all mean? When it comes to eggs, it’s anyone’s guess as to where those chickens have roamed and what sorts of tasty vittles they’ve consumed (or not) before they laid the eggs you’re about to purchase. What impact, if any, does this have on the eggs, not to mention the welfare of the chickens themselves? Whether you’re buying at the grocery store or your local health-food store or farmers’ market, how do you know what’s really in that carton, even when you ask?
It’s a complex issue and the answers can take a consumer on a wild ride, but let’s start with the egg itself. When you crack that farm-fresh egg open into a hot frying pan or see how creamily it fluffs up with a brisk whisking, the egg reveals itself.
“Eggs tell a story, perhaps more than anything else we buy at the farmers’ market,” says Brian Bruno of Apple Ridge Farms, in Saylorsburg, PA. “A cucumber looks like a cucumber—you can’t necessarily tell whether or not it was grown organically just by looking at it, or even by cutting it. But eggs, that’s something else.”
Farm-fresh, pastured eggs exhibit some telltale signs, starting with the shells. For example, brown eggs come from chickens that have brown around their earlobes. Even though they cost more, they’re not nutritionally superior to white eggs. Brown eggs are more expensive because the hens that lay them eat more.
You Are What They Eat
That’s only part of the picture. The yolks of pastured eggs are typically bright yellow or even orange—the best, like Bruno’s, call to mind the color of saffron. This reflects what the chickens have eaten: the deeper the color, the more likely it is that the chickens are spending a good amount of time on pasture outdoors eating whatever they encounter, in addition to their feed.
Bruno typically offers his hens an organic feed that contains soy, corn, kelp meal, brewer’s yeast and a number of other nutrient-dense ingredients that change with the seasons. (At the time of this writing, the feed available contained sunflower seeds, to increase the fat content during the winter.)
This attention to the care and feeding of his hens is one of the reasons why Bruno’s eggs regularly sell out within the first half-hour of any of the nearly dozen farmers’ markets at which he sells them. If a hen’s diet is rich in xanthophylls, those yellow-orange plant pigments surface in the yolks. “But some [bigger] farms know that people look for that, and so they add marigold petals to the feed,” says Bruno.
This results in the same vivid orange hue, but without the outdoor foraging. “Big Ag finds any way of getting on any trend,” he says. Superior nutrition is the goal of Vital Farms, a company whose pastured eggs, culled from more than 100 family farms across the southern United States, are available at local Whole Foods markets. Vital touts the nutritional profile of pastured eggs: They have a third less cholesterol, twice as many omega-3 fatty acids, and significantly more of vitamins A, E and beta-carotene than conventional eggs. (A 2010 study from Penn State came to similar conclusions about pastured eggs.)
Thanks to the increase in fats, pastured eggs also behave better in a pan. “Farm eggs have less liquid in them, so they don’t separate when they hit a hot pan and the whites don’t run all over the place,” says Bruno. Vital Farms spokesperson Dan Brooks says that Vital’s hens forage year-round and are fed a “carefully formulated feed.” He adds, “The taste, texture, creaminess and color of our eggs is affected by what they eat. Grubs can enhance the creamy texture.”
In contrast, conventional hens lay eggs with lighter yolks and watery whites, thanks to the lack of pasture and a feed consisting of corn, wheat, oats and barley. These are the eggs you mostly find in the grocery store for 99 cents a dozen. But chickens are omnivores, meant to eat just about everything from bugs and worms along with feed.
“The secret to good eggs? We used to fence the chickens in, but now we fence them out of where we don’t want them,” he says. So his two flocks have the freedom to roam his seven-acre farm, which is bisected by a small country road. He moves them around the pasture daily. This prevents the soil from becoming too depleted and overloaded with manure, which would be detrimental to the health of the animals.
When you crack that
farm-fresh egg open into
a hot frying pan or see
how creamily it fluffs up
with a brisk whisking,
the egg reveals itself.
What’s on the Carton?
Small-scale, regional egg producers with flocks of less than 3,000 laying hens don’t have the same set of rules as larger producers. The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture regulates the sale of eggs from these flocks, which must be sold within five days and within a 100-mile radius of production. Sometimes an egg carton might say “one dozen unclassified eggs,” because the farms have not weighed them or the eggs are different sizes. An Apple Ridge Farms dozen is a carefully culled mix of colors and sizes from various chickens, including Rhode Island Reds, Barred Plymouth Rocks, White Leghorns, Easter Eggers and Ameraucanas—the latter lay blue, green and pinkish eggs.
Farmers’ markets make conversations between farmers and consumers easy; relationships are the lifeblood of these venues. Bruno would be happy to tell you, for example, why he isn’t interested in organic certification (his farm is certified as natural) or why he doesn’t commingle older birds with newer ones. Supermarkets don’t have such farm liaisons, and many large farms don’t prioritize animal welfare the same way some smaller farms do.
And while a conversation with a farmer will probably answer your questions about those eggs, don’t look to government agencies for clarity at the supermarket.
“The USDA sees its mission as promoting agriculture. Therefore, it has been unwilling to define ‘humane’ as exceeding industry standards. Animal welfare advocates have avoided pressuring the USDA to define ‘humane’ because we are aware that it would likely accept industry baseline standards [which reflect “factory farming” practices] as the definition,” says Dena Jones, director of the Farm Animal Program at the Animal Welfare Institute in Washington, D.C.
For a typical shopper, it’s confusing and murky, isn’t it? But those who know and understand the regulations say otherwise.
“Oh, they’re crystal clear. They have to be,” says Brian Moyer, program assistant for agricultural marketing and entrepreneurship at Penn State Extension Center in Allentown. They may be clear (see sidebar), but there’s a lack of transparency among consumers about what those terms and labels mean.
According to Sam Jones-Ellard, a public affairs specialist in the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), there’s no industrywide accepted definitions of what “cage-free,” “free range” or “pasture raised” mean, but the AMS has “working definitions built into its policy for officially identified shell eggs. AMS applies these working definitions across all officially identified shell eggs, and verifies these claims through on-farm visits and through identification and segregation plans and procedures at egg packing facilities,” says Jones-Ellard.… Read More