Well, while we wait patiently for the ladies to begin earning their keep, we are in the same boat as most everybody else when it comes to eggs. We are still getting our weekly delivery of farm-fresh eggs with our veggie box once a week—which, with their orangey yolks and stiff whites, have turned us into egg snobs as it is—but that delicious dozen barely lasts us to the weekend, when pancakes or herbed baked eggs usually puts us over the top. So once in a while we still find ourselves staring at the expanding grocery store fridge, wondering how to choose. Organic? Free range? Pastured? Omega-3, wha?
What’s in a name?
It turns out that only a few of the typical labels are regulated. Here’s a breakdown, according to the Humane Society of the United States (emphasis mine, with my notes added beneath each):
HSUS: “The birds are uncaged inside barns, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.”
Between the lines: Certified Organic is definitely the best of what’s out there being regulated in the mainstream, but even if you ignore the icky bits (“permitted” beak cutting and forced molting?!), there’s some nuance to be aware of here. Vegetarian diets are a hallmark of organic livestock, intended to keep cows and pigs from being fed animal byproducts back to them and thereby promoting disease. Duh, that’s awesome! The sad thing is, chickens aren’t vegetarians – they are omnivores, like us, and in fact need lots protein to produce an egg a day. When they’re fed vegetarian diets, they usually get most of all of their protein from cheapo soy, which a) promotes a monoculture, b) doesn’t represent the natural, varied of a happy hen, and c) results in runny whites and pale yolks (visual evidence we’re not getting the most nutritious egg on our end of things). But an nuanced diet isn’t as easy to regulate as a blanket restriction.
In addition, the access part is mostly lip service – usually this means there’s a door somewhere in the barn wall leading to an outdoor space, which the hens are theoretically free to roam in at will. But chickens are creatures of habit and group-think, so if they’ve not been shown explicitly that they can exit through that door by a human or another chicken, it’s unlikely a hen will ever venture there on her own, if she ever came across it. And if she did, it might turn out to be a tiny concrete pad.
Free Range (or Free-Roaming)
HSUS: “While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free-range” for some poultry products, there are no standards in “free-range” egg production. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.”
Between the lines: Gah, I want this one to be real! It has so much potential. But it’s not audited, which means it’s not really regulated. So unless you know what exactly “free range” means to a given farm or producer, this one is pure marketing speak, plain and simple; the burden’s on you as the consumer to figure it out. Main thing that confuses most folks: Free Range is NOT the same as, and definitely does not imply, Organic.
HSUS: “As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.”
Between the lines: These birds are kept in warehouses or barns, just like Free Ranged birds, but with no outdoor access, and the label has the same issues as Free Range – no auditing means little accountability. But better than conventional.
HSUS: “These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.”
Between the lines: As mentioned above, chickens aren’t vegetarians! But lack of animal byproducts is worth the trade-off, so Veg-Fed is recommended. This also does not imply pesticide-free or antibiotic-free, but if you’re already buying Organic, this additional label is superfluous.
HSUS: “These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.”
HSUS: “This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.”
HSUS: “This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.”
Between the lines: These birds were fed fish oil or flaxseed, which actually is awesome and part of the varied diet I talk about above. We feed our hens flaxseed for the fatty acids it’s supposed to impart to the eggs! But yet again, this is not regulated, so there’s no way to know how much of these supplements the hens are fed.
HSUS: “The birds are uncaged inside barns but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.”
Between the lines: I haven’t seen this one much, but I think it’s on the rise, and it sounds pretty good to me. Providing for a chicken to be able to act like a chicken is an amazing step in acknowledging that these birds are living beings, not machines. The beak cutting bit sucks, and indicates that this method still gives rise to behavioral issues (hens in subpar conditions will peck each other and can cause serious injury), but if done properly at an early age, apparently it’s over and done with, not an ongoing issue like starvation or cramped quarters.
United Egg Producers Certified
HSUS: “The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. Hens laying these eggs have 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren battery cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.”
Between the lines: It’s a trap! This is far and away regarded as the worst and most misleading label, with its checkmark and “compliance” language. Do not buy based on this logo.
Turns out there are all kinds of interesting things to know about eggs and some can really help with informed decisions at the grocery or farmer’s market. Starting with freshness:
The lore goes that the fresher the egg, the better, and while there’s obviously more to it than that, we may as well start there.
How fresh is this egg?
Method 1: Get physical.
There’s a rather well-known way to measure how fresh an egg is with just the egg and a glass of water. Maybe you’ve heard of it – it’s well-documented elsewhere and I don’t have old eggs on hand to test it out, so I won’t post photos of it here. But it basically involves putting an egg in a glass of water and watching to see how it comes to rest. If the egg lies flat along the bottom of the glass, it’s supposedly fresh; if it stands upright but still sinks, it’s ok but a little older; and if it floats, ick, it’s super-old and don’t eat it!
This works because every egg has an air sac at one end. As the egg gets older, the white loses moisture (eggshells are porous) and the sac gets bigger, causing the egg to become more buoyant. But eggsperts (ha!) will tell you this method isn’t foolproof, because every egg is laid with a different size sac, so occasionally a fresh egg will read like an older one, and vice versa. If the eggs are still in the carton, you might instead try…
Method 2: Crack the code.
Don’t worry, it’s a very easy code, once you know what to look for! Surely you’re familiar with the sell-by date. Turns out that’s just a red herring in our quest for freshness. Pass right over that one and instead seek out a three-digit number between 001 and 366, which the food industry refers to as the Julian Date (apparently it’s actually an ordinal date).
In the US, every egg or carton is required to be stamped with the Julian date on which the eggs were cleaned and packed, and each number corresponds to the day of the current year – eggs marked 001 would have been packed on January 1, while my carton of eggs below was packed on July 7. Check my calculation here (PDF) – see? Easy!
Of course, the date an egg was gathered and packed may be a little later than the date it was laid, depending on the operation. So add a couple days, and you realize the sell-by date is more than a generous a month away. Do some grocery store calculations and you’ll see many store brand eggs sell eggs up to six weeks old! The shortcut is to simply grab the highest number you can find amongst those on offer – they’ll have been packed most recently.