Friday, April 21, 2017

A User's Guide to Good Eggs

Eggs are getting a lot of press these days, from the ballyhoo over big corporations announcing they'll only use cage-free eggs to debates over the credibility of the dizzying plethora of labels stuck all over the cartons in supermarket egg cases. So when I read this deep dive into the subject by my friend, writer Lynne Curry, I knew you'd be as intrigued as I was.

The other day I met a woman in the grocery store where we stood side by side scanning the overflowing options of the yogurt aisle. I felt almost dizzy trying to find organic yogurt.

When I reached for a quart of grassfed Stonyfield, she laughed. “That’s what I was looking for!” And then we chatted briefly about the ridiculously high sugar content in flavored yogurt for our kids.

She’s another shopper like me, I thought as I watched her walk toward the egg section. No supermarket stalker, I looked on with curiosity because I’ve been researching and writing about organic egg production here and here.

Again, she mulled over the offerings and surveyed the cartons bearing labels from cage free to organic to free range. When she picked up a carton of cage-free eggs, my heart sank a little.

Nope, I realized, she doesn’t know either. And so I committed to finishing this egg post to share what I know about finding, buying and eating good eggs.

Why Eggs Matter Now

Maybe you’ve noticed that the egg industry is undergoing a quiet revolution. We’re eating more eggs now than in the past 30 years—263 eggs per person in 2014, according to The Washington Post.

The story I’ve been following involves major policy changes and the 200-plus big businesses that have committed to transition to cage-free eggs by 2025. While Big Ag policy stuff is a big yawn most of the time, this change is already sweeping the country and changing the egg market for the better.

The shift to cage-free and the popularity of organics are two reasons why there are more choices on the market than ever—which makes buying eggs so confusing.

But here’s the uplifting takeaway: change is coming from the bottom, not the top. Consumer buying habits and concerns about the treatment of animals are the main driving force behind changes in egg production methods that affect the hens, the lands, the farmers and local economies as well.

It’s you. It’s me. It’s all of us shifting eggs away from the grip of factory farming because we want better lives for animals, better foods for our families and more corporate responsibility (read: honesty).

All Fresh Eggs Are Not Alike

You probably already know this if you have been lucky enough to taste a local egg. It’s hard to go back to store bought. But this winter, despite foraging far and wide, there were no local eggs to be found.

So, I had to make choices from the egg section at the grocery store.

Buying eggs is about the chicken and the egg. The difference of each type of egg carton—from cage-free to organic to pastured—is an indication of the chicken’s lifestyle, the nutrition and the flavors of each egg.

(There has been little research on the effects of pasture on egg flavors and the one study I found claimed there was no difference. C’mon! We’re just going to have to chalk up the question of egg taste to subjectivity and personal preference.)

But unfortunately, it’s not the whole story, and you have to dig deeper to get a truly good egg.

What about all of those labels festooning the cartons?

They are more confusing than helpful, in most cases. While there are a lot of egg label guides, I find most of them a little hard to decode, so I recommend downloading Animal Welfare Institute’s pocket guide. Or to find out how the organic eggs you already buy rate, scan this scorecard from the watchdog food group Cornucopia Institute.

Don't Be Fooled By Cage-Free Eggs

Here’s the deal: all eggs are going cage free. This means that millions of laying hens will no longer be confined to battery cages the size of an 8 1/2 by 11-inch sheet of paper.

While it’s a major step in the right direction for animal welfare, it’s a little more complicated than that, as this Mother Jones article reports. In short, these debeaked chickens are still confined to multistory laying facilities called aviaries where the conditions are crowded, air quality is questionable and the pecking order causes higher mortality rates.

Cage-free is not a compassionate eater’s dream, in other words. Cage free also has no bearing on the nutrition, quality and taste of the egg for you.

Why not?

The chicken feed is the same as for caged hens. Plus, while they can at least flap their wings and lay down, they do not get outdoors where they exercise and get sunlight while ranging for insects and other tasty items that diversify their nutritional intake.

Other Egg Labels and Seals 

Organic is pretty much about the feed, that’s it. So while organic eggs will be antibiotic and GMO-free, they will not necessarily come from hens who had any genuine access to the outdoors. In fact, the biggest producers of organic eggs operate giant multi-story hen houses called aviaries and they dominate the organic egg industry.

Chances are high that the organic eggs you buy come from an industrial egg producer. (This January, I reported how the organic rules were all set to change to disallow aviaries with no true outdoor access from qualifying as organic eggs. But that all went away.)

Free-range sounds good, but it doesn’t mean anything at all without any other verification to back it up. It is simply an alluring marketing claim that producers can slap on an egg carton at will.

Same goes for pasture raised, an unregulated term, so be on alert for false advertising.

Here are all the other labels that do not have any bearing on chickens’ quality of life or the nutritional quality or flavor of their eggs:
  • farm fresh
  • natural/all-natural
  • free roaming
  • sustainably farmed
  • vegetarian fed
  • hormone free
Stand-alone labels like these are just there to fool you. So just go ahead and ignore all of these meaningless claims from now on, okay?

Animal Welfare Certifications

These seals—or stamps of approval—on egg cartons do mean something. Called third-party certifications, they verify that the marketing claims are true. So, for example, if the label says pasture-raised or free-range and its paired with the logo from Animal Welfare Approved, this is the gold standard.

You can trust that an independent auditor made sure that the hens truly do live on pasture except for when their health or safety is at risk.

Certified Human (less stringent than AWA) and American Humane (less stringent yet) are two more third-party certifiers for eggs.

Yes, it is mind boggling. And yet necessary in a world where we have commoditized living creatures for profit.

But here’s where anyone can make a real difference…

(Read the rest of the article here and find out why pasture-raised eggs are nutritionally better, the four best types of eggs to buy and where to buy them!)

Small photos of egg cartons, cracked eggs and farm stand by Lynne Curry.

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