The Incredible, Marketable Egg
As I frequently remind you (and myself), I'm old. Old enough to remember going to the grocery store to buy eggs that just said “EGGS” on the plain, old-fashioned cardboard carton. No “cage free” or “hormone free” or “free range” or any of the other clever qualifiers stamped all over the fancy containers eggs come in nowadays.
Back in those days of blissful ignorance we didn't think much about how eggs got into the cartons. Most of us knew enough about farm life to draw mental pictures of jovial farmers in overalls going out to the henhouse and raiding the nests of contented cluckers. We didn't know – or want to know – about factory farms wherein thousands of hens existed in battery cages; wire mesh contraptions, stacked and wired together usually containing more than one chicken squashed side by side with another in an arrangement that keeps them from being able to spread their wings or stretch their legs or do much of anything other than sit there and lay eggs. Each bird “lives” – if you can call it that – in about seventy square inches of space. I'm looking at my 9”x8” mousepad. That's seventy-two square inches. My wireless mouse has more room to roam than a factory farm hen. Kinda makes you look at your omelet in a different light, doesn't it?
Fortunately, awareness of these inhumane conditions is slowly forcing changes to be made in the way eggs are produced. I don't know if we'll ever get to that bucolic scene I described in the previous paragraph, but several big egg sellers and big egg users have gotten behind efforts to moderate or eliminate the cruelty. A number of states have limited or banned the use of battery cages and legislation is in the works in other jurisdictions to make things better for the birds that provide us with such an essential element of our diets.
And, of course, even as substantive efforts at improvement are being undertaken at the legal level, here come the hucksters, hawkers, peddlers, and sloganeers from the ad agencies trotting out to help thoroughly obfuscate the issue. Ever ones to leap to the forefront of a cause to see if a dollar might be made there, they have cluttered supermarket eggs cartons with all kinds of meaningless words and phrases designed to confuse consumers into feeling better about themselves and their choices. With that thought in mind, allow me to blaze a path through the chickenshit in an attempt to offer some clarity.
Let's start with “farm fresh.” If you've ever seen – or smelled – a commercial chicken farm, “fresh” is the last thing that comes to mind. It's just a term they use to sell eggs. If you want real “farm fresh” eggs, you have to go a real farm. As far as commercial egg freshness goes, check all those arcane codes on the end of the carton. There's a “pack date,” an “expiration date,” and a plant code. The plant code simply tells you in what facility the eggs were actually packaged. It's a four-digit code that's usually preceded by a “P” and if you're really curious, the USDA has a plant location tool you can use.
The “expiration date” is more a guideline for the store than for the consumer. Also expressed as a “sell by,” “use by,” or “best by” date, it just tells the grocer when to pull the eggs from the shelf. You can still safely eat the eggs for at least a couple of weeks after they “expire.” Same thing with a “sell by/use by/best by” date; it's an indicator of maximum freshness, not safety. Both expiration and sell by dates are based on the pack date; expiration dates have to be thirty days or less from the pack date and sell by dates have to be within forty-five days. The pack date is the actual date on which the eggs were put in the carton. It's a three-digit number that may be a bit confusing because it's based on Julian dating. Julian dates run from 1 through 365 (366 in a leap year), so eggs packed on April 1 of a regular year, for instance, will be Julian coded as 091.
“Natural” and “All Natural” are among the ad game's most popular buzzwords. And also among the most meaningless. They tend to slap the word “natural” on just about anything. According to the dictionary, “natural” means “existing in or formed by nature.” If that's not a broad category I don't know what is. When it comes to eggs, the USDA says egg products are “natural” if they contain no artificial ingredients, added color, and are only minimally processed. I've never encountered an artificially enhanced, color-added, processed egg, so I'm assuming just about all eggs are “natural.” And if you're scrambling unnatural eggs, I'm not sure I want to know about it.
“Organic” is the next big word of the day. It's a term that actually does have meaning when it's enforced and not just used as a selling tool. Organic eggs can be a bit healthier for you because the chickens that lay them are healthier. Organic eggs come from free-range chickens that have not been doped up with hormones, antibiotics or other drugs and which have been fed with entirely organic feed. That means the feed given to the chickens can't come from crops that are genetically modified, treated with pesticides or herbicides, or fertilized with chemical or synthetic products. And no poultry-slaughter byproducts. Which leads to another often misunderstood label: “vegetarian-fed.”
People like to think of happy chickens eating grass and grain and green, leafy vegetables. That's a nice picture but far from the truth. Chickens are omnivores: they'll eat anything including other chickens or parts thereof left over from the slaughtering process. They also eat bugs and crickets and any fly larvae – aka maggots – they happen to find hanging around in cow manure. Sorry. Probably better not to dwell on a chicken's natural diet for too long, but do keep in mind that a “vegetarian-fed” chicken's favorite between meal snack is frequently.....chicken.
I mentioned hormones. That's another specious selling point: “No Added Hormones.” By law, laying hens are not allowed to be given hormones anyway, so this phrase is a selling gimmick. Even the cheap eggs in the cheap cardboard cartons that just say “EGGS” contain no added hormones.
Same thing applies to “Antibiotic-Free.” According to the US Poultry and Egg Association, there are only three antibiotics approved by the FDA for use in laying flocks and “only a small percentage of laying flocks producing conventional eggs ever receive antibiotics due to use of effective vaccines and other management practices which minimize the need for antibiotics to treat illness.” And FDA regulations for antibiotic use ensure that antibiotic residue does not migrate to the eggs. So, it's just another advertising gimmick.
“Non GMO” is a controversial term. In and of themselves, eggs are, of course, not genetically modified. Nobody's out there trying to engineer a better chicken or a better egg through genetic manipulation. The “non-GMO” label is meant to apply to the feed the hens consume, but unfortunately most gullible consumers just see “Non-GMO” and think, “Oh, how wonderful! Non-GMO eggs!” And that's what the ad people want them to think. It sells more eggs.
“Omega-3” sounds healthy, doesn't it? And most nutritionists will agree it is. Chickens on a natural diet get an omega-3 boost from sources such as the aforementioned grasses and weeds. Such hens, therefore, lay eggs that are higher in omega-3 fatty acids than chickens that are only grain-fed. Grain-fed birds get their omega-3 charge from fortified feed. “Omega-3” eggs can be fortified with different types of omega-3 fatty acids: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), commonly found in fish oil, and ALA (alpha linolenic acid), a component in flaxseed, walnuts, and chia seeds. EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid), also found in fish oil, is another player in the omega-3 game. The problem is there's no official recommendation for human intake of any of these substances, and even if you allow for the 1,000 mg daily intake of a combination of DHA and EPA that some experts promote, the amount of omega-3 acids added to eggs through a diet of flaxseed and fish oil are minimal. One omega-3 egg typically contains 340 milligrams of ALA and seventy-five to one hundred milligrams of DHA. So you'd have to chow down at least two-and-a-half eggs every day to get anywhere close to a beneficial level. But it sounds really healthy and it sells eggs.
“Humanely Raised” and “Animal Welfare Approved” are terms that help sell eggs to people who truly are concerned about animal welfare. You'll see little seals that say either “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” on the cartons. The former means that the egg producer subscribes to a set of rules and regulations that guarantee chickens have decent, healthy living conditions that include proper ventilation and appropriate nesting material in their nest boxes. They are also given the opportunity to “bathe,” something chickens do to rid themselves of lice and other parasites by flopping around in a box of dirt. The other label certifies that the birds have all these things plus being raised almost entirely outdoors and that they escape wholesale slaughter and are painlessly euthanized when their usefulness as layers expires.
Let's wrap up this walk through the chicken droppings by examining the real stars of the egg marketing firmament, “cage-free,” “free-range,” and “pastured” or “pasture raised.”
According to the US Poultry and Egg Association, “eggs labeled as cage free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food and water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” However, “cage-free” only means that chickens aren’t kept in actual cages. They might still live jammed in on top of one another, up to their knees in their own and their neighbor's waste, and never see daylight within that “building, room, or enclosed area.” And remember what I said about chickens being omnivorous? It has been shown in some cases that without the barriers of cages, “cage-free” chickens living in close proximity to other chickens have a higher mortality rate due not only to the easier spread of disease but also because they tend to peck one another to death.
“Free-range” is a little better option because, the association says, “free-range” eggs must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. The operative word here is “access.” Just because a chicken has “access” to the outdoors doesn't necessarily mean it goes outdoors. Often chickens are still jammed into cavernous buildings with a small door on one end that opens to a few feet of outside dirt space. Even if the chickens on the far end of the building know the door is there, there's no way they'll ever get to it. And “outdoors” doesn't automatically mean some picturesque pasture where the chickens can romp and play in the sunshine. “The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material;” in other words, a screened-in porch of some sort may qualify as “outdoors.”
“Pasture-Raised” or “Pastured” eggs are kind of the humane gold standard. They are exactly what they imply; eggs that are gathered from chickens who run around outdoors eating the things that chickens who run around outdoors eat. The “girls” at Vital Farms, for example, live on rotated pastures with an allowance of approximately 108 square feet per bird. Contrast that the with the seventy or so square inches allotted to commercially raised chickens in battery cages. Of course, regular old commercial eggs can sell for less than a dollar a dozen while pastured eggs go for upwards of six or seven dollars a dozen, but, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.
Oh, and one more thing you'll find printed on egg cartons: grades. Grades are the USDA's “beauty contest” for eggs. The grades “A,” “AA,” and “B” have nothing to do with the nutritional content of the egg. While they do help weed out defective eggs with unpleasant things like blood spots, meat spots, bloody whites, mixed rot, blood rings, stuck yolks, embryo chicks, and other nastiness that you wouldn't want to serve sunny-side up, grades are primarily cosmetic standards. The highest grade is Grade AA. These eggs have thick, firm whites and high, round yolks with clean, unbroken shells. Grade A eggs, the ones usually sold in stores, have most of the same characteristics of Grade AA, except their whites are "reasonably" firm. Grade B eggs have whites that may be thinner and yolks that may be wider and flatter than higher graded eggs and while their shells must still be unbroken, slight stains are permissible. And, of course, that USDA grade shield is yet another marketing tool used to sell more eggs.
No eggs were harmed in the writing of this article – at least not yet. I feel a frittata coming on and you know what they say about not having an omelet without breaking a few organic, pasture-raised, Grade AA eggs.