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.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.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