Thursday, August 20, 2009

Eggs: Pastured, Organic, Cage-Free...What Does It Mean?

As many of you know, our hens have recently started laying. Yay! An average hen will lay one egg about every 25 hours. So, with 2 of our 11 hens laying daily we can enjoy a fresh egg just about every day! But what is all the excitement about, I mean an egg is an egg, right? Well no, an egg isn't an egg. There are many different factors involved. .
When you shop in the grocery store you will see a variety of egg choices and (prices). There are conventional eggs (usually the least expensive), as well as cage-free, organic, etc.. Let's look at what these terms mean.
Conventional eggs: These are your standard run-of -the mill eggs. Usually coming from what some call "factory farms".These eggs are usally featured as loss leaders at .88 a dozen. Wow! A bargain! But what you don't know is how the hens laying those eggs are treated. Generally, hens are crammed into large windowless huts where they are do not have access to the outdoors. They are usually fed a diet that is loaded with antibiotics to stave off any disease or illness associated with living in such close quarters. The diet is usually corn based which is subsidized, hence very inexpensive to provide. The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals
discusses these very conditions. This book is a "must-read" for those curious about the inner workings of the origins of our food.
Organic eggs come from chickens that are fed a diet of organic feed, meaning no pesticides, insecticides or fungicides may be used. Also, there may be no GMO products or animal by-products used in their feed. Usually, organic is linked with "free-range" chickens. According to the USDA, in order for a farmer to claim his chickens are free-range chickens, they need to be able to reach the outdoors. However, the chickens don't actually HAVE to go outdoors. The opportunity just has to be present. Also, the area outside can be on grass, dirt or even concrete. The next time you are near a chicken farm, take note of the ground material outside of the pens. It will be highly unlikely that you will see green, green grass beneath the chickens' feet. And that's if you see any chickens outside the facility at all.
Pasture raised chickens are what is usually associated with farmers who raise small flocks of chickens. Small flocks are usually under 100 chickens. Chickens are naturally vegetarians, so for a company to claim their chickens are fed a vegetarian diet is praying on the naivete' of those not familiar with the nature of chickens. Chickens pasture-raised are allowed to walk around on either grass or soil looking for small bugs, bits of vegetation to meet their nutritional needs. Scratching the ground is a vital part of a chicken's make-up and should be provided to allow for a happy bird. Usually, as a safeguard, additional feed is provided as a means to make sure the chickens are receiving their recommended nutritional requirements. Bugs and grubs and even little toads are a necessary element to a chickens diet, which provide proteins to produce a superior egg. A superior egg has many different qualities. The first thing one may notice upon cracking open a pastured egg is the color. Instead of yellow, the yolk is usually a deep orange. Instead of spreading out in the frying pan, the pastured egg will be more compact, it's borders more defined. But what's even better is the nutritional value. According to LocalHarvest pastured eggs have 10% less fat, 40% more vitamin A and 34% less cholesterol than factory farms. The very best thing is the taste! A deep, rich taste that tells you right away that this is what an egg should taste like.
So, consider yourself enlightened! Now when entering the marketplace whether it be a supermarket or farmer's market, or maybe even your own "backyard market", you will have the tools to make an intelligent decision about the eggs you choose. After all, an egg isn't just an egg.


steph said...

what about "cage-free"?

muffy432002 said...

Cage-free chickens are allowed to wander around instead of being confined to a cage. In a cage, the bird is confined in such close quarters that flapping its wings is nearly impossible. Also, perching, dustbathing and other natural behaviors are denied the birds. I hope this helps!

Anonymous said...

Something I've wondered about: are chickens really "vegetarian" (more accurately called herbivore)? If they eat bugs and grubs and grains, that would make them omnivores. And it would suggest that an all-grain diet - such as that touted on grocery store boxes! - is not natural...)

(Tricia, an MFLB person)

muffy432002 said...

Yes, Tricia, they would best be described as omnivores. I've heard of chickens eating each other in stressful environments like battery chickens experience. My goal is to grow all my own chicken food and allow them to free-range as much as possible. That means eating bugs and slugs and such. I heard that is what makes eggs taste their eggiest!