Chicken Health / Chickens

Egg Labeling, Nutrition, and Ethics

With the girls now laying at least a dozen eggs every two days, I have been considering how I should describe or label my eggs.  They have organic feed and scratch, but because they did not “go organic” until they were 8 weeks old last summer, they would not qualify as USDA Organic.  They have well over ten square feet each in the run, probably more like 20+ though I haven’t measured, which they are out in from about 7:00 until 2:00 each day with some veggies and treats.  Finally, they free range, not in a tractor but actually just fence-less, from 2:00 until they put themselves to bed at dusk.  They spend about half that time in the forest and half on the lawn, under apple trees, or in my garden.  So, what do I call that?

I found great article on Grit magazine’s website.  But, I must add a disclaimer: Don’t read the article unless you actually want to know some rather disturbing facts about commercial egg production, and do NOT watch the video unless you really want to be disturbed.  I could only watch three minutes, but I am admittedly a pansy about such things.

So, here are some basic facts.  Most commercial chickens are kept in battery cages where they can’t much move and are quite unhappy and unhealthy.  Many facilities keep lights on 24 hours a day and clip beaks or take other measures to prevent some of the damage caused by overcrowding.  We’ll leave it at that, and I do apologize for the picture.  It just seemed incomplete without an illustration of this common practice.

By Maqi (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Laying hens in battery cages

Eggs labeled “organic” receive organic feed but still may be laid by battery hens.  “Cage free,” “free range,” and “free roaming” mean that the birds have access to the outdoors.  Now, this may mean that there is a chicken-sized door to a 10′ by 10′ concrete pad shared by 15,000 chickens.  Not completely reassuring. “Vegetarian” and “Nutrient Enhanced” refer only to the feed.  “Vegetarian” is kind of funny because chickens are omnivores.  A vegetarian diet would not provide optimal health to a chicken.  (Chickens will not only eat bugs but small animals like mice if they have a chance!)  “Nutrient Enhanced” means they added Omega 3s or other nutrients to the feed of their (otherwise comparatively deficient) layers.  Pasteurized eggs are washed and waxed.

There is no difference between white, brown, blue, or any other colored chicken eggs.  Brown eggs have the reputation for being healthier because white-egg-laying Leghorns were first used in commercial production while most American farmers used brown-egg-laying American breeds.  It is the inside of the egg, not the outside, which can give some indication of nutrition.  Orangey-golden yolks generally denote better nutrition, although some have caught on to this and actually feed marigold petals or similar to enhance yolk color.

Certified Humane,” “American Humane Certified,” and American Humane’s “Free Farmed” labels do take the treatment of the animals into account.  (Here is an article on “humane” labeling.) For example, Certified Humane’s poultry layer requirements require at least 6 hours of darkness, require room to forage and dust bathe, limit the number of birds per waterer, disallow hormones or poultry meat in the feed, and require a litter on the floor and nesting material in nest boxes.  Still, they allow a minimum of only 1.5 square feet per bird or just 1.2 feet if perches are provided.  My birds have 6 square feet each if they are locked up inside their coop.  1.2 square feet still makes me shiver.  American Humane Certified still allows battery cages.  (Many vegetarians are validly concerned about what happens to male chickens.  I will address this in another article.)

Many egg producers have created their own terminology.  Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms right over the hill in Swoope, VA once called his farm products “beyond organic.”  His laying hens are pastured using large mobile coops and electric fencing.  They roam the grassy hills, following the cows to scratch in their droppings for tasty larvae.

By VanTucky (Own work) [CC-BY-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by/1.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Chicken tractor

Pastured (not “pasteurized”) eggs are from layers raised on pasture, usually fields.  These birds may be confined to “chicken tractors.”  Chicken tractors are mini-coops with attached runs that are easily moved from place to place so that the chickens can be on fresh ground.  Pastured birds may also be confined to an area by electric fencing, like Salatin’s hens, or allowed to roam freely like mine.  Fields are good for grasses, but chickens can rustle up quite a big of grub (including actual grubs) in the forest – the ancestors of domestic chickens were jungle fowl.

Mother Earth News has published several articles on the benefits of pastured eggs.  This article was based upon their previous research, detailed in this article.  They compared eggs from 14 different free-range/pastured producers to the USDA’s data for conventional, confined birds.  You can see the actual data here.  As you may have guessed, a more natural lifestyle results in far greater health and happiness for the hens but also for those eating their eggs.  Eggs from pastured poultry have:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • Two times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • Three times more vitamin E
  • Seven times more beta carotene
  • Three-to-six times more vitamin D

Mother Earth News, 2007

If you want to learn more about how eggs are good for your health, start with this article and work out from there.

I think I will say “Free-Ranged, Pasture-Raised, Organic-Fed,”  “Free-Range and Pastured,” or something like that.

‘Cuz my birds got it good. 😉

See a great visual about this topic at: http://visual.ly/do-your-eggs-come-happy-hens

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23 thoughts on “Egg Labeling, Nutrition, and Ethics

  1. Yes it is apalling. There is a bill to give some freedom to battery hens. I wrote my Congressman to vote for the bill. The response I received was that due to the economy there was limited money. I think he was in favor. Some poultry farms had already agreed to stop using the batteries. Hope others will join. It will be over a period of the next few years. After that I started using my local farmers market or locals that sell eggs. I try to educate others, but many think an egg is an egg and don’t consider the animal or don’t really care.

  2. You are making me really miss my chickens! I loved their eggs. They had run of our 6+ acres and the eggs tasted sooooo much better than store bought. Be careful how you use the word organic, don’t want to see you get into trouble with the gov.

    • Very good point. The USDA certifies that “(1) Poultry. Poultry or edible poultry products must be from poultry that has been under continuous organic management beginning no later than the second day of life;” to use the term organic. We don’t use any chemicals here, but the birds began organic feed at 8 weeks for the older birds and 3 for the younger. I think I’ll just explain the way I manage my birds and what they are fed and let people decide for themselves. That, and I’ll probably have, like, 5 egg customers. 🙂

      • I left out a step in my reasoning: I hadn’t realized that Virginia required eggs to meet the USDA requirement just to use the word “organic.” There is a difference between the word “organic” and being certified organic by an organization. I see this all the time when I buy gardening supplies like compost. However, Virginia requires that all egg producers meet the USDA standard to use the word organic. Virginia’s regulations are here: http://www.vdacs.virginia.gov/marketing/pdf/organicflyerpdf.pdf.

  3. Heather’s Happy Healthy Hillside Huevos!

    Awesome blog Heather! You just get better and better. Keep it up. 🙂

    Recent story on NPR… http://www.npr.org/blogs/thesalt/2012/01/26/145900751/ex-foes-stage-coop-detat-for-egg-laying-chickens

    You know, the farmers that talked at the workshop I went to last Thursday all said – Don’t sweat the labels, let your customers know how you run your operation, and word of mouth will take care of the rest. Reputation is everything.

    Carry on!
    Glen

    • I love the name! I just may use that… I’m sure you are right about reputation over labeling. I will only sell to a handful of friends and neighbors anyhow, so I won’t even actually need labels at all. They’ll all know me so well, they are probably already sick of hearing about my chickens. 🙂
      And thank you for the link. That is the most comprehensive article I’ve seen on the proposal so far.

  4. Reblogged this on Scratch Cradle and commented:

    With so few of my hens laying due to the molt, I’ve been considering purchasing eggs. To me, this is a great challenge and one I generally avoid by keeping chickens myself. I want healthy eggs for my family, and I do not want to support businesses which do not provide ethical care for their animals. Those of you making similar considerations at this time may appreciate this article reposted from last February concerning how eggs are labeled and what these terms mean.

  5. I wrote a blog post on this topic a few years ago and was similarly appalled at the lack of regulation for however you want to define natural eggs.
    There is a producer a mile from our place that markets their eggs as organic pastured free-range blah blah blah. Their eggs sell for $6 a dozen, with shiny happy flyers posted at our local co-op showing sun and grass and happy hens.
    I drive by their overcrowded barren mudpits twice a day and want to scream. They make money and promote themselves to the community as being caring sustainable farmers, but the truth of their operation is terrible.

    Our customer base is small, so everyone knows how their eggs are produced. My hens are in a grazing area for part of the day, eat locally grown & milled feed all day, and get fed home grown wheat, corn, root veggies, beans & squash every day too. I plant cover crops in the grazing paddocks that will be nutritious for them, and they go to new areas every couple of weeks. It’s a lot of work, but I know my hens are happy and my methods are in tune with my habitat.

    Some of my customers call them ‘happy chicken eggs’. We say they are organically-fed, free-range, pastured, eggs from happy chickens.

    • I think that is perfect! I’ve found the same thing when selling my eggs. I sell to so few people that we can easily have lengthy discussions about my chickens and how they are raised. When I first posted this article last February, a friend suggested “Heather’s Happy, Healthy, Hillside Huevos” which I thought was awesome. I actually used that on my little fliers at work. It’s a real shame about your local producer who is obviously putting profit in front of all else.

  6. This is really interesting, even to a non-chicken owner! I appreciate how you’ve explained the labeling. For many years I bought eggs from a family friend whose father had his own backyard farm chickens, so I knew they were well taken care of. When I moved from Canada to the US, I had to try and sort out all this labeling, and I figured the best I could find was Certified Humane and Organic.

    Thanks so much for sharing this on Waste Not Want Not Wednesday 🙂 I’ve pinned it to my WNWN board and don’t forget to check back on Wednesday to see if you’ve been featured.

    • I think that’s the best you can possibly do! Since I am nearly out of eggs, I think I am going to look for a local person where I could go pick up the eggs and see how the hens are looking. I just need to find someone who still has eggs this time of year!

      BTW I put the WNWN button on the post I linked directly to with my current comments. Then, because it’s a “reblogged” post, it links back to an earlier post with the rest of the article. Thanks!

  7. Pingback: Ten Tips for the New Year « Scratch Cradle

  8. Pingback: Now THAT’S an egg! | Garry and Evelyn's blog

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