Which came first?
It is thought that wild fowl were domesticated a few thousand years ago according to Egyptian and Chinese records leading to what is now, about 200 breeds and varieties of chickens worldwide. Not surprisingly in the past century, just like a lot of other industries, the business of egg production has turned from a mostly small farm system to a highly industrialized system that has increased production of the hens and decreased their mortality rate substantially. There are roughly 300 million laying birds in the U.S. that produces about 75 billion eggs a year, about 10% of the world supply.
There has been evidence that the highly industrialized process of producing eggs isn’t a healthy environment for the chicken, due to the lack exercise, exposure to fresh air, and a diet higher in a broader range of nutrients from grazing. The result being a chicken producing an egg that might not have all the nutrients we would get from a chicken with a diet that was more “wild” and spending time outside. In response to this information, smaller scale industrial farms are attempting to produce higher quality eggs.
When shopping you will often see multitudes of choices with catch phrases emblazoned on the packaging such as Free-Range, Cage-Free, Organic, Vegetarian Diet, or Omega 3 enriched diet etc. to entice you to purchase their eggs. These eggs are all more money and this newsletter will hopefully help explain the differences, so you make the best decision within your budget.
United Egg Producers Certified: Don’t be fooled, this is a coalition of egg producers with lower standards with each hen provided space equivalent to a letter sized piece of paper.
Animal Welfare Approved: Certification given to independent farmers whose hens are in smaller flocks of fewer than 500, spend all their time outdoors in a pesticide free pasture, and are not fed animal byproducts. Chicken beaks are not cut, chickens molt naturally and be able to perform natural behaviors like nesting, perching, and dust bathing. Antibiotics are allowed but if applied the chicken is taken out of egg production until the infection is better
American Humane Certified or Certified Humane: Like the Welfare Approved, these hens are not subjected to forced molting (a practice that is involves a short starvation period, so the chicken loses its feathers) resulting in increased egg production afterward. The difference is beak cutting is allowed, however that means just the sharp tip is cut to prevent chickens from injuring each other.
Antibiotic Free: Unlike cattle, the FDA doesn’t allow the routine use of antibiotics in egg laying chickens. They can only be used if the chicken is ill. Chickens raised for meat is another story completely.
Cage Free: This sounds nice, but the truth is, the chickens may still be confined indoors in very cramped conditions.
Free Range: This also sounds nice but again, the chickens may only have access to a small outdoor area that is not available to them all the time especially in colder months. This might only be a concrete slab. It would be a good idea to check the company’s website and see if you can discern how much time the chickens roam and forage.
Pastured Raised: In this category chickens get part of their food from outdoor sources (bugs, greens) which may increase some vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids. However, there is no regulation about how much time the chickens are out in a pasture. Hopefully that changes soon.
No Hormones: This terminology is meaningless because the FDA does not allow any hormone products in egg production.
Natural or Naturally Raised: Another term that is meaningless. All it means is that nothing was added to the egg such as flavorings or coloring. It does not mean that the egg came from a chicken that wasn’t given genetically modified corn or soy.
100% Vegetarian Fed: Chickens fed a vegetarian diet are certainly not going outside because chickens are not naturally vegetarian. They enjoy eating bugs, ticks, caterpillars etc.
Organic: If certified Organic, the chickens have not been given antibiotics, and their feed is free of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals. However, there is no guarantee that the chicken gets outside.
Omega 3 Eggs: Producers add algae or flaxseed or fish oil to the chickens feed hoping that this will add Omega 3 fatty acids to the eggs. Some estimates are that it increases the omega 3 content of an egg from 30 mg. to 100-600 mg per egg.
Soy Free: Useful if someone has a soy allergy.
GMO Free: Chickens are fed grain that does not contain genetically modified corn, soy, or anything else genetically modified. It does not mean it is organic.
Pasteurized Eggs: All liquid eggs are pasteurized and some in shell eggs are too. This is for the extra cautious person looking to lessen the chance of salmonella bacteria exposure.
CA SEFS compliant: California shell egg food safety compliant. This is a new California label that ensures that each chicken has enough room to lie down, stand up, flap its wings and turn around.
Grade AA, A or B: Most eggs are either grade A or AA with very little difference between the two. Grade B may have thinner whites, so they may be better used for baked goods or an omelet whereas as the grade A and AA work better as fried eggs.
Jumbo, Extra-Large, Large, Medium: A jumbo egg has nearly 8 grams of protein and 90 calories about 50% more than a medium egg which has 5.3 grams of protein and 63 calories.
I feel that the five best labels to pay attention to are #1, American Welfare Approved and #2 Certified Humane. This tells me that the chicken has access to the outdoors and has a diet that isn’t vegetarian. I also think the smaller farms of 500 birds are more likely to have the chicken roam and forage for food. Next, I would look for #3 organic, #4 GMO free and #5 pastured, which to me shows the feed is of higher quality and that the chicken can forage more. Therefore, look for these four labels and I think you will find a healthier more nutritious egg! Ignore things like the color of the eggs, whether the packaging says natural, cage free, or free range, or no hormones or antibiotics. Most of this is just a marketing ploy to confuse you. By the way, there is no official sticker for pasture raised, at least not yet.