October 30, 2011

The Best Eggs to Buy and Eat

Eggs used to be much simpler—and so did the activity of buying them. Families collected eggs from their hens, used them in their households, and sold the extras. My dad grew up on a farm, and he helped sell his family’s eggs. He’d put the “Eggs” sign in his front yard when there were some available. “Extra large, large, medium and small—come to Stoney’s and get ’em all!” That was his slogan.

Different Sizes of Eggs set on dark wooden background

These days, clever (and often deceptive) marketers, aware of growing consumer worry about where eggs come from, include all kinds of promises on egg carton labels. Decoding this labeling can be confusing and make it frustrating to tell which eggs are actually sustainable, healthy and come from humanely raised animals. So what are the best eggs to buy and why?

Eggs in Grocery Store

First, the status quo for commercial egg production (these details won’t be fun to read, but knowing this information and getting pissed off about it is a good thing): The baby chicks that are destined to become high-production egg layers start their lives in huge hatchery operations where the unwanted male chicks are either ground up alive or tossed into dumpsters and left to suffocate. If you’ve ever been around baby chicks, imagining tossing hundreds of those balls of fluff into a dumpster—alive—is probably enough to make your stomach turn.

The female hens are shipped to gigantic warehouses where they will live relatively short lives in “battery cages.” These hens are the most intensively confined animals in agriculture, so cramped together that they can’t even spread their wings. They are denied all of their natural instincts: They cannot peck, scratch in dirt, take dust baths or “nest.” Because they are so cramped and have nothing to peck at, they’ll turn to cannibalism, pecking at each other. To prevent this, commercial hens are “de-beaked” before they’re confined, which means a hot blade cuts off their beak, one of the most sensitive parts of their body (this is done without anesthesia). Some liken this to a child having her fingertips chopped off.

In a natural environment, when a hen is about to lay an egg, she seeks a safe place and makes a nest of grasses, hay, small twigs and other materials. When crammed together with other birds inside of a battery cage, she has none of these options, so is in a constant state of stress. When she’s about to lay an egg, she desperately seeks the corner of her tiny cage, but there is no safe place to go.

An industrial chicken warehouse houses up to 100,000 hens. Because of the huge amount of waste concentrated in one of these warehouses, a cloud of fecal dust hangs in the air and the facility reeks. Some liken the amount of pollution coming from one concentrated factory farm to that produced by a small city, creating significant environmental and public heath concerns. One example: According to the National ResourcesDefense Council, “Runoff of chicken and hog waste from factory farms in Maryland and North Carolina is believed to have contributed to outbreaks of Pfiesteria piscicida, killing millions of fish and causing skin irritation, short-term memory loss and other cognitive problems in local people.” 

There are no windows in the warehouses and bright artificial lighting is kept on around the clock to increase egg laying production. Industrial hens eat cheap feed from genetically engineered (GE) crops—the growing of which is itself associated with large-scale environmental pollution—and lay nutritionally inferior eggs.

Laying hens are bred to have such high production rates that their bodies can barely keep up with the rate at which they lay. Rather than the 20 to 30 eggs they would lay naturally each year, industrially farmed hens lay more than 275 eggs per year, according to the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service. Calcium from a hen’s bones becomes depleted as she lays more and more, and her bone structure becomes weak. Many hens live in their cages with broken legs. Others get their heads stuck in the cages and are trampled by their cage mates. Many die every day. In fact, because most activities in the warehouses—such as feeding, watering and egg collection—are automated, the most time consuming aspect of the operation is removing the dead birds from the cages.

Once the laying hens’ productivity starts to decline, they are shipped to slaughter. Their handling is rough, and more legs and wings are broken in the process of transport. They are given no food or water for up to 36 hours in a cramped truck as they’re transported to a slaughtering facility.

About 95 percent of eggs sold in the United States come from the system I just described. That’s a staggering number. And I’ve only highlighted a few of the main horrors of this system—not all of them. Most eggs in a typical grocery store come from this system. It’s a sick industry that considers dollars and cents and not much else. Unfortunately, even those cartons that say “cage free” may not contain eggs from a better system. Let’s break down some of the common claims.

“Cage Free” and “Free Range” Eggs. Sounds great, right? I always thought looking for such labels meant I could feel guilt-free about my egg purchases. But what this really means is that the hens aren’t raised in battery cages, but are most likely still raised in a cramped warehouse with concrete floors. The photo directly below shows the typical life for hens laying “cage free” or “free range” eggs. For chickens that naturally want to forage and scratch in the dirt, it still isn’t much of a life. They’re still most likely de-beaked and still come from commercial hatcheries. Furthermore, these claims don’t have anything to do with the type of feed the animals are given, and they are most likely eating the same commercial GE feed as battery hens. For more information, see Cage-Free vs. Battery Cage Eggs.

What Free Range Chickens Really Look Like

“Vegetarian Fed” Eggs. This claim is pretty laughable. Chickens are not naturally vegetarians. In fact, chickens love eating all kinds of bugs and worms, in addition to grasses, seeds and vegetation. A label of “vegetarian fed” is pretty much a guarantee that the eggs are from an industrial system and that the hens that laid them have never spent a minute outdoors on pasture. Chickens are omnivores, and the best eggs come from chickens eating an omnivorous diet. The only reason for feeding chickens a vegetarian diet is to try to decrease the risk of disease that may be introduced from feed containing potentially contaminated animal byproducts. Overall, this is not a label to seek out, but to avoid.

“Organic” Eggs. The eggs labeled organic are usually the most expensive option in a store. But all this label tells you is that the hens that laid these eggs weren’t given antibiotics and didn’t eat feed that came from crops doused with commercial pesticides. They ate organic, vegetarian feed. That’s a good thing, right? Well, if the hens were still raised in poor conditions in a polluting warehouse, still de-beaked and still from hatcheries, the certified organic feed isn’t much of a consolation. While on some products the “organic” label is a positive, in the case of eggs it doesn’t tell you enough.

“Pastured” Eggs. As far as I know, this is one claim that hasn’t been completely co-opted by agribusiness. Unless through some insane twist of rhetoric someone starts calling a concrete warehouse floor a “pasture,” I think looking for eggs from pastured hens is a good thing. Still, it’s a good idea to ask questions about the hens to see whether their daily time on pasture is limited in any way. You can also ask farmers whether they get their hens from commercial hatcheries or hatch chicks on the farm. If hens truly live their lives on pasture, eating lots of grasses, seeds, worms, grubs and insects, they lay incredibly delicious, nutritious eggs with dark yellowish-orange yolks. Studies show that eggs from pastured hens have four to six times as much vitamin D as eggs from factory-raised hens. These superior eggs also have less cholesterol, less saturated fat, more vitamin A, more omega-3 fatty acids, more vitamin E and more beta carotene. They’re practically not even the same food!

Pastured Chickens

Sourcing and eating eggs that come from hens raised on pasture with dignity is better for the environment, better for the animals and better for you. I hope instead of just feeling hopeless and disgusted about the way most eggs are produced, you feel empowered to find alternatives and support farmers who treat their animals with respect. Here are some resources for finding the best eggs:

Search EatWild’s state directory of farmers. Simply click on your state on the yellow map and read about farmers selling meat, eggs and dairy products from pastured animals in your area. You can also search LocalHarvest for eggs in your area. In some cases, these farms will list farmers markets and retail outlets where you can find their products. In other cases, they may sell direct from the farm. Sure, driving to one of these farms may not be as convenient as picking up cheap eggs at the store. But you can make it a fun, worthwhile trip. Get a few friends together, go to one of these farms, say hello to the farmers, spend your money on something you can feel good about, and while you’re there, stock up on other products the farm sells in addition to eggs. I’ve never gone to a farm and purchased something, then later felt like it was a waste of money or a waste of a trip. However, I have purchased items at a grocery store that I didn’t feel great about and later thought it was a complete waste of money.

If you do start sourcing healthy, local eggs from ethically and sustainably raised hens, don’t forget that most restaurants buy and use cheap battery-cage eggs, and most products in stores that contain eggs use them, too. Read labels and ask questions. Don’t be afraid to be the person in a restaurant who asks where different foods come from. Just think, what if 10 people were to ask a server at a restaurant about where the eggs come from, then at that restaurant’s next staff meeting, that server were to speak up and say, “Hey, lots of people have been asking about our eggs. Maybe we should look into better sourcing.” Change—and even the hope for change—comes from each one of us. And that’s something to get damn excited about.

Finally, the next time you’re driving on a country road, keep your eye out for an “Eggs” sign in someone’s front yard. Some families raising chickens still take part in the simpler system of selling their extras to passersby.

Top two and bottom photo from Flickr/Creative Commons; third photo from Wikipedia/Creative Commons

5 comments:

  1. Eggcellent post, very educational. Thank you!

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  2. First of all, I love your dad's sign. Second, thanks for taking to time to give the information we can use to react to your analysis of the status of eggs and hens in the commercial food system. Getting people to go on farm tours (maybe with a warning about feeding donkeys their fingers...) is the best advice anyone could ask for! Thanks for another great post!

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  3. Thanks for the comments, Jennifer and Doug. And you're welcome!

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  4. Wow, Shell, thanks for this informative post. It's so amazing how the food industry has taken something as basic as the egg and made it into this big, confusing and harmful mess. I had never heard of "vegetarian fed" eggs, for instance. So silly. But I can see how it could be a lucrative label.

    Thanks for the empowering how-to info at the end of the post, too!

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