The Chicken and The Egg...
Never Mind Which Came First!
The Real Question is: Where Did They Come From?
Many varieties of eggs have now flooded the market, confusing consumers with the varied labels and certifications, leaving us helpless in trying to decide how to make the healthiest decision regarding the purchase and consumption of eggs. Common labels on eggs today are “Organic”; “Cage-Free”; “Free-Range”; and “Pasture-Raised.” All of these sound healthy and appetizing. Don’t be fooled, though! It’s time to educate ourselves about the differences between these labels, in order to be assured we are bringing home, and eating, the healthiest choice in eggs. Let’s break it down...
Pasture-Raised: The Best Solution
As Dr. Korman indicates in “The Keto Minute,” pasture raised-chickens is the preferred situation. This situation comes the closest to replicating the chickens’ natural environment and way of life. Pasture-raised birds spend most of their time outdoors, with a reasonable space in addition to the access of a protected area...a barn. Many of the birds are able to eat their natural diet of worms, bugs, and grass, as well as corn feed (which may or may not be organic).
Mark Kastel, of the Cornucopia Institute says that there is a wide range of “pasture-raised” farms. Some of which have spacious fields and others are a bit more congested. Some producers of pasture-raised eggs list, on their egg carton, the square footage of space per bird. Some farms rotate their birds through different pastures to ensure a rich, varied diet; others keep the birds on the same plot of land. Some have the preferred trees and bushes, which chickens love, and other areas are flat, wide-open fields, Kastel goes on to say.
This label means absolutely nothing. What? Yes. This is not a sign of your local farmer, gathering eggs in the morning and rushing them to your local store. Paul Shapiro, VP of the Humane Society of the US and an expert on commercial egg production says that the terminology, “Literally means nothing.” He describes the term as probably intended to “conjure up a favorable image in the consumer’s mind, but having no substance whatsoever.”
Again, there is no validity here. This does not mean that the chickens are eating a “natural” diet and doing what chickens naturally do. Mr. Shapiro describes this phrase as another which has no real meaning at all. He describes the term as “ironic, because [conventional chickens] are raised in the least natural conditions imaginable.”
This is a bit deceiving, as well. It doesn’t exactly mean what it says. It is not happy chickens, wandering around the farm barn, pecking the corn kernels from the hay covered floor. These are not our grandparents' chickens. It actually means literally what it says. The hens don’t live in cages, however, they don’t live in the barn, either. They are usually living in aviaries, massive industrial barns housing literally thousands of birds, allowing approximately 1 square foot of space for each bird.
According to Mr. Shapiro, and other animal welfare advocates, cage-free birds are better off than the caged birds. “They’re not exactly living on Old McDonald’s farm, but they’re able to walk around, perch, lay their eggs in a nest and spread their wings — all important natural behaviors,” says Shapiro.
Janice Swanson, an animal scientist at Michigan State University, has been leading a three-year study of egg production techniques. Ms. Swanson describes the situation as cage-free birds having more feathers, stronger bones and exhibiting more natural behaviors. However, according to Ms. Swanson, crowded aviaries come with risks, such as reduced air quality and twice the likelihood of dying. One of the most common deaths to the chickens was pecking by other chickens.
This label is pointless. It sounds like birds were spared injections of hormones that might render them unhealthy. In fact, it is actually illegal to give hormones to poultry, and no large-scale farms in the U.S do so. This label is akin to a label saying, “No Toxic Waste” on a box of cereal. It means nothing, really.
This is misleading, as well. “Antibiotics are rarely used in the egg industry,” says Mr. Shapiro. “Chickens raised for their meat, on the other hand, do commonly get antibiotics to fend off disease and increase animal growth.”
Ok. This is not playful hens on green hills out at the farm. It only means that the hens are “cage-free” plus having “access to the outdoors.” However, notes Mark Kastel of the Cornucopia Institute, “This ‘access’ typically means a few small doors that lead to a screened-in porch with cement, dirt, or a modicum of grass. And often industrial fans that suck ammonia out of the building create ‘hurricane winds’ through the small doorways and the birds don’t really want to walk through that.”
Kastel claims that the “vast majority of free-range birds in commercial egg facilities never actually go outside. Therefore, in most cases, free-range means the same thing as ‘cage-free.'” Unfortunately, and unlike poultry production, there is no government regulation of the term “free-range” when it comes to eggs. Sadly for we consumers, companies can pretty much interpret this in any way they choose for marketing purposes.
This is not chickens munching on the salad bar of grass and herbs out at the farm! This is not their natural diet. As Dr. Korman pointed out in her “The Keto Minute - Eggs," chickens are omnivores. In the wild, they get most of their protein from worms, grasshoppers, and other bugs. “Any hens on a ‘vegetarian diet’ are probably eating corn fortified by amino acids,” according to a published NPR (National Public Radio) article.
Omega - 3
The hens that produce the “Omega-3” labeled eggs are not necessarily fed a more healthy diet leading to eggs rich in omega-3 acids. More likely those hens are given a bit of flaxseed mixed with their corn, possibly leading to a higher level of omega-3s in their eggs. You are probably better off to just eat your own flaxseed!
In the case of eggs, the term “Organic” is very specific, and any egg producers who use this term are subject to USDA regulation. Organic eggs must come from chickens that are free range (cage-free plus access to the outdoors), fed organic feed (no synthetic pesticides) and receive no hormones or antibiotics.
Kastel warns, however, that, “As was the case with ‘free-rage’ eggs, ‘organic’ eggs are usually coming from birds that live in crowded, industrial aviaries.” His organization has crated an egg scorecard that rates organic egg farms on a much wider variety of factors.
Certified Humane/Animal Welfare Approved
“The term ‘humane’ treatment, according to PNR, is very subjective and a topic of much debate. But the third-party auditing organizations Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, and American Humane Certified, assess egg farms according to a robust set of animal welfare guidelines.” It’s about the best we’ve got at this point in time.
Where To Buy Eggs With These Labels...
Available in most supermarkets. Growing consumer demand has led to wider availability in recent years
Free-Range, Organic, and Pasture-Raised:
Available in many grocery stores, local food co-ops, farmers markets, and community-supported agriculture programs
Research for this article came from:
National Public Radio, WGCU / Humane Society of the United States / The Cornucopia Institute