How virtuous are your eggs?

Organic? Cage-free? Pasture-raised? No matter what the lingo, not all eggs are created equal.

(Note: Recently, I reported on a recent study from the Cornucopia Institute that rated 70 egg producers, including two local producers. The ensuing comments raised a lot of questions about how customers can wade through the confusion. This is the unedited version of a story that will run in the Press Democrat in the coming weeks. Some of it rehashes the original piece, but there is a lot of new information as well. Enjoy.)
With the recent nationwide salmonella outbreak linked to factory-farmed egg production, legions of wary customers are trolling the grocery aisles and farm markets for organic or pasture-raised alternatives as a safer or more sustainable solution.
Not surprisingly, a wealth of promises await in the ever-growing refrigerated section devoted to eggs. Hormone-free, cage-free, antibiotic-free, free-range, Omega-three enriched, cholesterol-reduced, and of course in a rainbow of colors from white to brown, green, blue and tan. But buyer beware, because because homey cardboard packaging, smiling farmers and empty promises of happy chickens don’t always mean well-bred eggs.
Eggs, like so many other foods, have fallen victim to the green-washing trend, being labeled with the latest catch-phrases that consumers want to hear. So can you make the best choices when it comes to your morning scramble? It pays to do a little research.
First-off, a few definitions are handy when it comes to egg education. These definitions are distilled from a variety of sources including the USDA, producers, and various industry publications and third-party studies devoted to organic egg labeling.
Organic: Laying hens must be fed an all-organic diet without byproducts or GMOs. To be organically certified- hens must have access to the outdoors and cage-free, according to the USDA. There have been exceptions to the outdoor-rule in California based on the risk of the birds contracting avian flu.
Cage-free: Hens are not kept in cages, but allowed to move freely. The passage of Prop. 2 in 2008 mandated that all California egg-producers be cage-free, by 2015. Cage-free, however, can mean many things. Large factory farms can have thousands of birds packed into barns with limited or no access to the outdoors. Others allow for plenty of room and full or partial outdoor access.
Hormone-free: This is a red herring. No hormones are approved by the FDA for poultry production.
Free-range, Pasture-Raised: Hens are allowed to roam freely outdoors during the day, Studies indicate these eggs may be higher in nutrition, but detractors raise concerns about the spread of avian flu to wandering animals and the possibility of birds inadvertently eating toxin and passing those along to consumers.
No-kill: When a hen no-longer produces eggs (usually about four years), they are often slaughtered. No-kill operations let the non-producers live out their natural lives.
Brown eggs: Brown eggs are not nutritionally different than white eggs. They, along with green and blue eggs, come from different breeds of chickens.
Vegetarian diet: This can be a bit confusing. Vegetarian chickens don’t exist in the wild — chickens enjoy insects and worms, so it means the birds probably don’t go outside. On the plus side, it also means their feed doesn’t include animal by-products like feathers, bone meal or beef tallow.
Antibiotic-free: Heavy use of antibiotics on chickens is unusual and very expensive for egg producers. Ultimately, it doesn’t mean a lot, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to know your egg isn’t pumped up with medicine and the flock is kept healthy.
Natural: A product that contains no artificial ingredients or added color and is minimally processed. Though regulated by the USDA, opponents argue that the term is too vague to be of much use.
Fertile: If roosters are kept with the hens, eggs are considered fertile. Often a catch-word for un-caged.
Humane, Animal Welfare, United Egg Producer Certified: There are a number of certifiers who audit living conditions. Animal Welfare Approved is the highest standard, but none of its certified producers sell to supermarkets. American Humane Certified allows for cage-confinement. UEPC certification allows for battery cages and beak-trimming, making it the least restrictive of the certifications.
Omega-3 Enriched: To produce these nutritionally-enhanced eggs, hens are given flax seed, algae or fish oil in their feed. This has no effect on the treatment of the animals or their organic-status.
Now that you know the lingo, it’s time to do a little self-examination. Labels can tell you a lot, but your own conscience will have to be your guide.
If animal welfare is your highest priority, expect to pay a premium (up to $7) for a dozen eggs. It takes a great deal of space and care to raise hens outdoors and larger producers — even conscientious ones — don’t usually offer pasture-raised birds. John Kearns of Healdsburg Farm Fresh Eggs, who has a small flock of about 150 birds, sells his pasture-raised eggs at local markets for about $6, and looks to two recent studies that give high marks to the increased nutritional profile of eggs produced by pasture-raised hens. “You have to eat 3 conventional factory farmed eggs to equal the same nutrition just 1 of my eggs contains,” said Kearns in an email. He is not, however, certified organic, which he claims is cost-prohibitive to a small operation. Local farm markets and farm stands typically sell non-organic certified eggs from pasture raised hens.
A recent study from The Cornucopia Institute recently released its Organic Egg Scorecard rating 70 egg producers around the country. The Institute looked for small-to-medium sized family farms raising pastured chickens sold under the farm’s name or to natural grocery stores. In Northern California, it’s highest ratings went to Alexandre Kids, Cresent City; Elkhorn Organics, Prunedale and St. John Family Farm, Orland. It gave “Very Good” marks to Clover-Stornetta Farms, which are American Humane certified.
If organic is your highest priority: Midsized and large farms can certify that their eggs have met the criteria for organic. Petaluma Poultry, a mid-sized family farm, with about 250,000 birds, sells under a variety of brands, including Judy’s Family Farm, Uncle Eddies Cage-Free Eggs, Rock Island Fertile Brown Eggs and Gold Circle DHA Omega-3 Eggs. All of the family’s hens are cage-free and their organic eggs are certified by Oregon Tilth, one of the most stringent certifiers. Owner Steve Mahrt, a third generation chicken farmer, was a pioneer in the organic egg movement, and was the first to be certified more than a decade ago. Petaluma Poultry’s hens are not considered pasture-raised, because the birds are kept to screened-in porches and their barns due to the threat of avian flu. “They can go outside in a controlled safe manner,” said Marht. Cage-free organic eggs usually cost between $3 and $5.
Go local: Something that nearly all Northern California producers agree on is buying eggs locally. Large factory farms can process millions of eggs per day, going to across the country under a variety of labels. Concerns about contamination, carbon-footprints and the welfare of hens packed into battery cages is a good reason to pay close attention to where your dozen hails from.
If price is your highest priority: Not everyone can afford high-brow eggs, but you may want to consider looking at your eggs with a more critical eye. At minimum, look for cage-free eggs. Compare commercially-produced eggs with eggs that you buy from a farm market, and you may be surprised at the visual difference — yellower yolks, thicker whites.