Gwen McTaggart

Food Choices: Understanding Egg Labels

When you go to purchase an egg you are faced with a lot of decisions.  Brown or white?  Conventional, Cage Free, Free Range, or Pastured?  Conventional or Organic?  Whether you're in the grocery store or buying directly from the farmer it's important to understand what the many different terms mean and their signifigance both to your health and the health of the chicken.  I cannot stress enough how much better it is to buy your eggs directly from your farmer or neighbor if you're fortunate enough to live close to a backyard flock.  You should be able to visit the farm and assess the living conditions of the hens for yourself as well as ask questions about their treatment and feed.  I'll include a list of sample questions at the end.  Unfortunately, especially during the winter months when egg production is typically down, some families will need to supplement with eggs from the store.  In this article I will try to give you all the relevant information you need to successfully navigate the egg aisle and/or interview your farmer.

White or Brown?

The difference between brown and white eggs is nothing more than a difference in breeds.  Many people equate brown eggs with healthy eggs.  Brown eggs are not necessarily any more nutritious than white eggs.  The way the hens are raised and kept is much more important than color.  Eggs come in a beautiful array of colors - white, pink, green, blue, and many shades of brown.  Our current flock consists of Leg Horns, Rhode Island Reds, Barred Rocks, New Hampshire Reds, Golden Laced Wyandottes, Black Austrolorps, and Amberlinks.  Our eggs range in color from white to a deep brown.  Since they all free range on our 12 acres of pasture and are fed a supplemental diet of certified organic grains (no corn or soy) along with past its prime produce, raw milk, and kitchen scraps, there is no nutritional difference between the white eggs and brown eggs.  The yolk color will vary according to their diet from yellow to an almost red-orange.  Summer yolks are darker typically than winter yolks in a free range flock.  Bottom line - don't be scared of white eggs.  :-)

Conventionally raised, cage free, free range, or pastured?

Conventionally raised hens are kept in what are called battery cages.  These cages are very confined spaces in which a hen is unable to even spread her wings much less do all the things chickens were created to do - scratch, forage, and dust bathe.

Cage Free hens are not confined to a cage but usually spend their lives in an overcrowded barn and most likely have their beaks clipped to prevent them from pecking each other.  Pecking one another is most often a reaction to overcrowding and stress.

Free Range is obviously a much better alternative to conventional or cage free but it still can be misleading.  Free Range simply means that the hens have access to the outdoors.  Again, you still often have overcrowding issues and the chickens aren't able to properly forage due to confinement.

Pastured is a label commonly used by small family farms but there is a lot of variance in what that really means.  We label our eggs pastured.  For us this means our hens spend the majority of their time outside.  Their coop is closed up at night to avoid common predator problems and opened late morning granting our birds unrestricted access to our property and often our neighbor's property as well.  Chickens don't understand fences and property lines.  This allows the chickens to feast on their native diet of plants, bugs, and small rodents.   In winter months they get a larger grain ration as well as bone broth and organ meats from grass fed animals.  Vegetarians please keep in mind that chickens are omnivores.  You can feed them a vegetarian grain ration but unless they are confined you cannot ensure that they are keeping to a vegetarian diet as they will happily catch and eat mice and other small animals that may wander into their coop.

Conventional or Organic?

 This typically refers to their feed ration.  Generally, especially in the winter chickens require a feed supplement though backyard flocks can get away with only supplementing kitchen scraps.  Conventional, Cage Free, and most large operation Free Range chickens eat only grain.  Chicken feed can be full of chemicals, antibiotics, and genetically modified corn and soy.  Chickens raised in battery cages usually require medicated feed as their living conditions are pretty terrible.  When purchasing eggs from the store you'll want to look for certified organic eggs as this should ensure that the feed is free of genetically modified grains, antibiotics, and chemical residue.  The National Organic Protocol also requires that all certified organic animals have access to the outdoors.  I did recently read an article that stated that some certified organic producers are not following the requirements which was very disappointing.  You can read the article at cornucopia.org (opens in a new window).  Cornucopia.org also has charts that rank many certified organic producers so that you can make a better choice at the grocery store.

Where can I find good eggs?

More and more families are raising their own eggs in their backyards - ask around and find someone nearby that is willing to sell any surplus.  Local grocery stores such as Elbert's and River City Food Co-op in Evansville and Paradise Organics in Newburgh stock eggs from local farmers.  The cartons should be labeled with contact information for the farmers so you can call and discuss their practices and ask to tour their farm if they're willing.  Urban Seeds has a great farm database that can help put you in contact with your local farmers.  www.urbanseeds.org

Sample questions for egg producers

Do your hens have access to the outdoors?  Is it unrestricted?

What is their diet composed of?  If they are fed a grain ration how is it sourced?  Is it certified organic?  Non-GMO verified?

Are your hens routinely given antibiotics?

Can I visit your farm?  Ideally you'll see chickens that are able to come and go from their coop or are in mobile chicken pens that are moved frequently.  Their feathers should look to be in decent condition but keep in mind that they can look pretty terrible when molting.  The coop should be relatively free of strong odors but again give your farmer some grace as it can be difficult to keep on top of housekeeping sometimes.  ;-)

You'll need to think about what is most important to your family in regards to eggs.  Can you live with less than perfect feed ration if the hens are loved and well cared for?  Or would you rather see less than ideal living conditions but certified organic feed?  Hopefully you'll be able to find a perfect fit for your family - especially as more farmers in our area begin making changes in their practices.

We currently do not have openings for new egg customers but you can view my recommendations for egg producers on our resource page.

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