Finding eggs that are safe, nutritious and humanely raised can be a challenge for many people, and the labels on egg cartons certainly don’t help.
Approximately 98% of all eggs purchased in the U.S. come from battery cage hens, and labels such as “Farm Fresh” and “All Natural” can be misleading, as they tell you nothing regarding animal welfare, what the animals are fed, or how nutritious (or potentially dangerous!) the eggs are likely to be.
And while I am quite aware that organic standards are far from perfect, I do buy organic eggs from the grocery store from time to time, when my local farmer is out—secure in the knowledge that the organic label means they come from happier, healthier hens, right?
Or so I thought…
Apparently, even certified organic eggs can come from hens living in inhumane, factory conditions—making their eggs both a nutritionally and ethically inferior product.
The photo below (and at the top) is just one shocking example of conditions that most “organic” chickens must endure, details of which are laid out in a damning report by The Cornucopia Institute called Scrambled Eggs: Detailing the conditions in industrial-scale organic egg production.
The report is the result of two years of research where the Institute visited over 15% of the certified organic egg farms in the United States, and surveyed all name-brand and private-label industry marketers. The report’s findings demonstrated a huge difference between the best-practice husbandry exhibited by many small and medium-sized organic egg and chicken producers, and the bare-minimum standards followed by many industrial-scale operations.
According to the Cornucopia Institute:
“Imagine 80,000 laying hens in a single building, crowded in confinement conditions, on “farms” with hundreds of thousands or a million birds. Is that organic?
How about a tiny enclosed concrete porch, accessible by only 3%-5% of the tens of thousands of birds inside a henhouse. Does that pass as outdoor access as required by federal organic law?
Industrial-scale egg producers are gaming the system, producing “organic” eggs in huge factory farms, crowding tens of thousands of chickens in two-story buildings with small porches passing as “outdoor access.”
Some of the factory farms don’t even bother with the phony-baloney porches—they have notes from their veterinarian saying (and we wish we were making this up), “Don’t let your birds outside; it would be hazardous to their health.”
These industrial-scale producers, with their livestock management shortcuts, are placing family-scale organic farmers at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. Some pasture-based organic farmers have already been driven out of the organic egg business.”
We have an opportunity to reverse this travesty and support authentic organic agriculture. The USDA’s National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) hears regularly from well-funded and organized industry lobbyists, which is why organic egg standards are so low in the first place! We must ensure that they also hear from people who appreciate real food produced the way it was meant to be.
This means you and me!
What Kind of Eggs Should I Buy?
So, if you can’t even trust certified organic eggs (or chicken) anymore, how do you know what kind of eggs are safe, nutritious and humane?
The first clue is price. As usual, you get what you pay for. If you buy the cheapest supermarket eggs—even the cheapest organic eggs—you are not only missing out on the valuable nutrients eggs should contain, you are also supporting an industrial production system that treats animals cruelly and makes more sustainable, small-scale egg production difficult.
Beyond the price tag, the labels on egg cartons can be confusing and misleading. Here is what some of them mean: (Also see infographic at the end of this article.)
Omega-3 Enhanced – Omega-3 enhanced (or omega-3 fortified) eggs come from hens given feed that contains significant amounts of flaxseed, which is high in omega-3 fatty acids. Most omega-3 enhanced egg layers live out their lives in battery cages. Omega-3 eggs are unregulated, and the amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in eggs can be quite variable.
Cage-free – Cage-free is a loose, unregulated term where eggs could be from chickens confined to a barn, or from chickens with access to outdoor space. There is a big difference between the two! Cage-free egg producers are not audited by third-party inspectors, unless they are also certified organic.
Many people buy “cage-free” eggs believing that the hens that lay them have access to outdoor pasture, but the reality is that these chickens usually live inside dark sheds. They are free to roam around within the enclosed space and to stretch and spread their wings—which is a significant improvement over battery cage conditions—but they don’t typically have access to outdoor pasture.
As with battery cage farming, forced molting (starving hens to produce more eggs) and beak trimming (removal of a portion of the beak, usually with a heated blade) are common practices.
Free-range – “Free-range” doesn’t necessarily mean pasture raised any more than “cage free” does. Free-range hens are supposed to have access to the outside, but there is no regulation as to how long they need to be outside, how much room should be given, or about any of the standards that would make them “free-range.”
Plus these birds can still be given antibiotics, animal byproducts, and food from GMO crops. They may live in overcrowded conditions, and may or may not have access to nests and perches. In other words, they are probably not what you thought they were. The photo at the top of the article is an example of the conditions that qualify as “cage-free” or “free-range” for both egg-layers and meat birds.
Organic – Certified organic eggs come from antibiotic- and hormone-free hens that have “access” to outdoor areas and are fed an organic diet, though some beak trimming is allowed. The conditions in which organic eggs are laid are verified by third parties, which reduces the likelihood of fraudulent labeling.
However, until consumers demand stricter standards for organic eggs and chicken, “access to the outdoors” can mean millions of birds crowded into a shed with access to one tiny, concrete-floored porch (like the image above). So it’s a good idea to do a little investigating into your brand of eggs, or use this great Organic Egg Brand Scorecard to help you choose a healthier, more humane egg!
Pasture-raised – True free-range eggs from hens raised on grassy pastures are more nutritious than those obtained from cage-free, confinement operations or battery cages. However, free-range producers are not audited by third parties unless the eggs are also certified organic. The label “Pasture-Raised” is also unregulated and without uniform standards, so, once again, it’s a good idea to do a little investigating or use the Organic Egg Brand Scorecard.
(It should be noted that the “pasteurized” label is sometimes mistaken for a pastured, free-range indication, but “pasteurized” actually means that eggs have been treated to eliminate salmonella bacteria so that they may be eaten raw.)
Animal Welfare Approved – Animal Welfare Approved hens live in cage-free environments with real access to outdoor pasture. They are able to move freely, socialize, and engage in natural, health-promoting behaviors. Beak trimming and forced molting are prohibited. This is a relatively uncommon certification at this time, but with your help, its usage could grow.
The helpful infographic at the end of this article visually breaks down which labels mean what.
Why Does A Pasture-Raised Egg Matter So Much?
If you’ve never eaten an egg from a hen raised on sunshine, bugs and grass, then you are in for quite a treat. Deep orange, gooey yolks stand up tall within their thick, milky whites unlike any store-bought egg you’ve ever seen.
Their color, flavor and texture are made distinctive by high amounts of Vitamin A, D, E, K2, B-12, folate, riboflavin, zinc, calcium, beta carotene, choline, and tons of omega 3 fatty acids, including DHA, EPA, ALA, and AA. A pasture-raised egg is a true superfood.
Second only to the lactalbumin protein in human mother’s milk, eggs have the highest quality protein of any food. In addition to being an affordable, extremely dense source of nutrition, eggs can be prepared in a variety of tasty ways. This is especially true of a pasture-raised egg.
Mother Earth News conducted an egg testing project in 2007, and found that eggs produced by truly free-ranging hens were far superior to those produced by battery cage hens. The study involved 14 flocks across the United States whose eggs were tested by an accredited Portland, Oregon, laboratory.
They found that the benefits of pasture raised eggs include:
- 1/3 less cholesterol
- 1/4 less saturated fat
- 2/3 more vitamin A
- 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
- 3 times more vitamin E
- 7 times more beta carotene
They also found that eggs from hens raised outdoors on pasture have from three to six times more vitamin D than eggs from hens raised in confinement. Pastured hens are exposed to direct sunlight, which their bodies convert to vitamin D and then pass on to their eggs. Eating just two of these eggs will give you from 63-126% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D!
Note that this benefit comes only from hens that are free to graze fresh greens, eat bugs, and bask in the sun. 99% of the eggs sold in the supermarket do not meet this criterion.
Even though the label says that the eggs are “certified organic” or come from “cage free” or “free range” hens, or from hens fed an “all-vegetarian” diet (chickens are NOT vegetarians!), this is no guarantee that the hens had access to the outdoors or pasture—which makes all the difference.
In addition to the Mother Earth News research findings, there have been a number of other studies showing that pasture-raised eggs are healthier than those produced by confinement-raised hens. Findings include the following:
- Pasture-raised eggs contain 70% more vitamin B12 and 50% more folic acid (British Journal of Nutrition, 1974).
- Greek pastured eggs contain 13 times more omega-3s than U.S. commercial eggs (Simopoulos, The Omega Diet, 1988).
- Pasture-raised eggs are higher in vitamin E and omega-3s than those obtained from battery-cage hens (Animal Feed Science and Technology, 1998).
- Pasture-raised eggs are 10% lower in fat, 34% lower in cholesterol, contain 40% more vitamin A, and are 4 times higher in omega-3s than standard U.S. battery-cage eggs, and pasture-raised chicken meat has 21% less fat, 30% less saturated fat, and 50% more vitamin A than that of caged chickens (Gorski, Pennsylvania State University, 1999).
- Pasture-raised eggs have three times more omega-3s and are 220% higher in vitamin E and 62% higher in vitamin A than eggs obtained from battery cage hens (Karsten, Pennsylvania State University, 2003).
Long and Alterman (2007) attribute the dramatic differences in nutritional content to the fact that pasture-raised hens consume a more natural, omnivorous diet that includes seeds, worms, insects, and green plants, and they get a lot of sunshine.
Factory farm birds—both conventional and organic—never get to see the outdoors, let alone get to forage for their natural diet. Instead they are fed the cheapest possible mixture of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals, with all kinds of additives, often including arsenic.
So for the best eggs you can get, look for eggs from “pasture-raised” hens that are only supplementally fed with organic grains. You are most likely to find these superior eggs at farmer’s markets or natural food stores. Better yet, purchase them directly from your local farmer, or raise a few chickens yourself. The benefits of pasture raised eggs can’t be beat!
In the end, all of this is just one more reminder that while certifications and labels may be useful tools, there is no substitute for having a real relationship with your local farmer(s) and knowing where your food comes from.
- Find eggs from pastured hens in your area on Eatwild.com.
- Organic Egg Brand Scorecard – Rates organic egg producers from “exemplary” to “ethically deficient”
- Mother Earth News Egg Study
- Infographic: http://visualism.org/2012/08/25/do-your-eggs-come-from-happy-hens/