Buying a Better Egg
It has been said that Capitolism allows demand to drive the market. Unfortunately, the food industry is quick to jump on any bandwagon that seems to increase their bottomline and, well, kind of deceive the public. The egg making industry is no different. While people seek better treatment of the animals they eat, the slight ‘tweaking’ of a few details can give an illusion that doesn’t really exist. Enter the cage-free movement, the Omega-3 eggs, and the organic chickens. Some large agribusinesses began providing chickens a cage-free environment to better allow for more natural chicken behavior throughout their short lives. Chickens live in a warehouse but are not confined to a cage, allowing for walking, pecking, and wing flapping. Closer to the ceiling, rods are available for chickens to perch whenever they like. Chickens can lay their eggs in nests. The dirt floors allow for dust-bathing as well.
This sounds a lot better than what caged chickens go through, but it is only by a little. Although the chickens are free to engage in a few natural chicken behaviors, that is where the benefits end. The term “cage-free” means just that. These chickens are still packed by the thousands and tens of thousands in warehouses or barns. Although they can move around, they are still running into each other and never go outside. Beaks are still cut or burned to reduce injury or death to other hens due to overcrowding. According to an article for NPR, these chickens may feel that they have more freedom than their caged counterparts, but they still live in similar conditions. Cage-free hens dust-bathe on floors in their own excrement, and are twice as likely to die in the first year as hens that live in cages. Cage-free is not really all that free when you think about it.
Purchasing from local farmers and farmer’s markets can provide fresher, safer eggs as long as the eggs were refrigerated shortly after harvest. Also, look for eggs marked “Pasture Raised” which claim to allow each of their hens 100+ square feet of individual space outdoors, with the freedom to forage for their own food. Be sure to wash the outside shells with hot, soapy water before storing in your refrigerator. Pasteurized eggs kill most harmful bacteria without cooking the egg and are a good choice for the young, the elderly, and those with health problems. They are also the best choice for any recipes requiring raw eggs like fresh mayonnaise. With proper care for selection, storage, and cooking, you can enjoy eggs with little risk from contamination.
What About Organic Eggs?
Organic eggs assure that the hens have not been given vaccines or antibiotics, and have only been fed grains raised on land that has been free of toxic chemical pesticides and fertilizers for at least 3 years. However, in regard to the subject matter in this article, the caging systems, or lack thereof for cage free and pasture raised hens, does not come into play. Organic eggs may come from caged hens.
How to Know if You Bought a Good Egg
When purchasing eggs, open the carton and check for eggs that are cracked or discolored. Check the 3-digit code, or Julian date, to see what day of the year the eggs were picked and cleaned. For example if the 3-digit code says 030 then you know the eggs were packed on the 30th day of the year or January 30. Expiration dates can occur more than a month after the eggs were harvested. Both regularly-packaged eggs and those with cage-free labels may produce health risks when produced in unsafe environments. It is common to hear about eggs being recalled due to salmonella fears or other health issues. Thoroughly cooking your eggs can reduce any potential risk.
Best practices is to grow your OWN, but this is not always reasonable. There are family farms where eggs can be purchased or food co-ops that purchase directly from family farms. Knowing your grower is the key ingredient to good food.