Happy Eggs

"Free Range," "Cage Free," "Organic"—What’s the Story?

In the past 10 years, the egg has undergone a remarkable transformation, from a humble provider of protein, vitamins and minerals to an all-purpose edible conduit through which beneficial nutrients or potentially harmful chemicals can pass into the human body. As Americans become more critical of what they eat, small farmers and large-scale agribusiness have responded with a bewildering array of choices. And with the increasing variety of food products, even basics like eggs can confuse consumers.

The everyday egg has undergone some changes lately, giving consumers a range of choices that are better for them—and better for the chickens.
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In any reasonably enlightened grocery store, the consumer can choose between "free range," "cage-free" and "organic" eggs. One brand may be "fortified with omega-3"s," and another from hens fed only with "natural grains." One package is simply labeled "natural." What do these different labels actually mean? And what is their significance to people with widely varying needs, such as a heart disease sufferer, a nursing mother, a vegetarian and an animal rights activist? And weren’t eggs supposed to be bad for you anyway, being packed with fat and cholesterol?

The truth is that although eggs" nutritional value has been demonized in the past, they are a valuable source of protein, vitamins and minerals. A large egg has about 215 grams of cholesterol (about 70 percent of the daily allowance), meaning that it is probably best to eat them in moderation. However, eggs do contain heart-healthy nutrients such as antioxidants, folate and B-vitamins.

Organic and cage-free eggs have shown seven-fold growth since 1997. "Specialty eggs," as Linda Braun, consumer services director at the American Egg Board terms them, "Amount to about five percent of the total U.S. egg market." But this growing popularity has allowed smaller organic family farms to compete with the mechanized egg-producing giants, since they can charge up to twice as much for a dozen eggs.

In fact, many smaller farms have been able to stay in business because customers will pay—some because they care about animal rights, some because they prefer organic foods, and others because they believe organic eggs just taste better. "Some of our customers in their 70s and 80s call us and tell us they haven’t tasted an egg like ours in years," says Jesse LaFlamme, whose father is Gerry of Pete and Gerry’s Farm, a family-run egg producer in New Hampshire.

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) does not rate the taste of products, it does oversee all domestic egg production. Although eggs can now carry the USDA Organic label, the agency doesn’t regulate any other claims made on egg packages. The organic label, as defined by the new official standards, means that neither the hens nor their feed can be subjected to antibiotics, hormones, pesticides or herbicides. As for other package descriptions, LaFlamme sums it up when he says, ""All-natural" is one of the biggest loopholes going. There are no guidelines around for that. It’s in the hands of the consumer to sort it out."

The "Free-Range" Debate

When it comes to "cage-free" and "free-range" chickens, the debate gets pretty nuanced. At Organic Valley, a family of farms across the U.S., the hens are said to be free-range. According to a package insert, that means five feet of green space per bird outside and two feet inside, as well as natural sunlight inside the hen house. Egg Innovations, also a farmer’s cooperative, produces several varieties of eggs, including cage-free. All of the company’s eggs are "Free-Farmed," a label monitored by the American Humane Association. This label promises that the chickens are "free from any unnecessary fear and distress; free from unnecessary pain, injury and disease; free from hunger and thirst; and free from unnecessary discomfort." The company says its policy is to put animals first, over the dictates of profit.

Pete and Gerry’s shies away from using the term free-range. "We think it’s misleading to call them free-range," says LaFlamme. "We call them cage-free since it’s not really realistic for them to be going outside in the winter in New Hampshire. They go outside when weather permits." A relatively rare label, "pasture-fed eggs," is applied to hens that are fed grains and also forage outside for wild plants and insects.

Omega-3 eggs contain that valuable nutrient due to its direct inclusion in chicken’s feed. The source might be flax or linseed or a direct supplement. The levels of omega-3"s, which are also found in cold-water fish such as salmon, algae and dark-green vegetables, are self-regulated, so the assurances on packages aren’t monitored. This polyunsaturated fat has been linked to increased mental function and immunity, reduced risk of heart disease, and more balanced metabolism, according to Dr. Andrew L. Stoll in his book The Omega-3 Connection.

Battered Hens

Joe Haptas of People For the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) thinks the debate about how chickens are treated and fed is important, but overlooks the larger issues involved in egg production. "If people got the full story, I would hope they would choose not to consume eggs at all. It’s intrinsically problematic to raise chickens for egg consumption. Male chicks are thrown away, even in small-scale operations, since they don’t lay eggs. That’s 50 percent of the chicks that are destroyed."

While animal rights advocates often support better treatment of chickens including more space to move around outdoors or in, and the elimination of battery cages (which can be less than 48 inches of space per bird in the U.S.), Haptas argues that there are alternatives. "There are great egg-replacement products and plenty of egg-free products available," he says. One example is Ener-G Foods" Egg Replacement, which comes in a box and uses potato starch and tapioca flour as a base.

Even if you aren’t a bonafide animal rights advocate, there appear to be significant links between the health of the hens that lay the eggs we eat and our own well-being. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) still consider egg-transmitted Salmonella enteritidis to be an "important public health problem." Pregnant women, children and the elderly are especially prone to serious illness from hen-house pathogens.

Factory farms and industrial slaughterhouses can be breeding grounds for the development of disease for several reasons, including the fact that hen houses can contain up to 15 million hens, often in very crowded conditions. The resultant stress lowers immunity and leads to widespread antibiotic use, which has come under fire by the CDC and the World Health Organization. The Keep Antibiotics Working campaign points out that many of these antibiotics are the same ones administered to humans, and the group argues this may lead to dangerous antibiotic resistance among human diseases.

The Egg Board’s Braun defends the practice by saying, "Low levels of antibiotics are occasionally,

but only rarely, used to prevent disease and ensure the health of laying hens, and are not considered to be food-safety issues for eggs." Steve Roach, food safety manager for Food Animals Concerns Trust, says, "Though egg farmers aren’t supposed to sell eggs from treated hens, there is no government examination for drug residues."

Due to health and humane concerns, many European countries have already banned the battery cages that keep laying hens from being able to move around or stretch their wings. Germany is going a step further by using the law to go back to small-scale farming. By 2006, no German building can house more than 6,000 hens at a time. Perhaps the United States should take some inspiration from the Old World and end unhealthy and inhumane practices just to make a cheaper breakfast.

STARRE VARTAN, a Connecticut-based freelance writer, enjoys organic and other specialty eggs.