Supermarket Angst Part II: What Eggs Should I Buy?

by Carrie Kirby on 31 May 2009 30 comments

Recently I wrote about marketplace confusion when it comes to milk -- in terms of cost, health, the environment and animal welfare. Today, I'm taking on eggs, another area where my bargain-sensor and desire to eat better end upmutually lost in a sea of terminology. In future installments, I'll look at poultry and meat choices as well.

Eggs are very nutritious, and conventional eggs represent one of the best protein bargains on the market -- you can often get a dozen eggs, 12 protein servings, for around $2 or less. When you get into cage-free, organic and other more rarified eggs, you're looking at $3-$5 a dozen or more, which is still a bargain when compared to the same amount of meat with similar classifications. A meat protein serving is 3 ounces, which means to equal a dozen eggs you'd have to buy 2.25 pounds of meat. You're not going to find 2 pounds of organic meat for $5.

But are eggs with organic and cage-free labels worth the extra cost? What about other labels, like free range and "fertile," and those labeled touting high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids? In the past couple of years, I decided that I was willing and able to pay the average $1/dozen price difference to purchase cage-free eggs instead of regular. I usually buy a brand called Spareboe, whose cage-free eggs sell at my favorite store for $2.67 and for around $2.99 at some other bargain stores.

But I wondered: How was this one brand able to sell cage-free eggs for less than other producers? Were their chickens living under worse conditions than others? And does cage-free equal cruelty free? Are the eggs I'm feeding my kids safe even though the chickens aren't eating organic feed?

The Humane Society of the United States has campaigned to ban battery hen cages, a movement that so far has succeeded in California, and the organization's description of a typical laying hen's life in a cage is enough to confirm at least one thing for me: I don't want to go back to buying regular eggs. The same page also comes right out and confirms my worry that cage free is not equivalent to cruelty free: "the mere absence of cages doesn't necessarily ensure a high level of welfare."

But it does sound like buying cage-free is a big step in the right direction; cage-free hens usually get to lay their eggs in nests and express other natural behaviors, sparing them a lot of stress. But if I do want more assurance that the eggs we eat are truly cruelty free -- and my neighborhood does not allow backyard hen-raising -- what should I be buying? The Humane Society also has a handy guide to a whole bunch of labels that appear on egg cartons, many of which I have never seen.

One claim the guide gets out of the way: "natural" doesn't mean anything when it comes to animal welfare. It also explains that USDA has no standards for use of the term "free range" when it comes to egg production, but as a general rule, the difference between eggs labeled cage-free and those labeled free-range is that the latter has some degree of outdoor access. There are no rules dictating whether that means they spend most of their lives in sunny pastures, happily pecking at bugs, or if they get to venture out a little door into a tiny outdoor dirt pen once a week. Hens laying certified organic eggs are required to have outdoor access, but again, how much and what kind are not specified.

Eggs labeled fertile are layed by hens who are kept around roosters, which would not be the case if they were caged. So it's another way of saying cage free or free range.

Based on this information, I DON'T feel that it would be worth it to spend more to upgrade from the cage-free eggs to free-range or organic, just based on animal welfare. There just aren't adequate standards to guarantee that these labels mean less animal cruelty.

There are two labels that guarantee hens a better life -- "certified humane" and "animal welfare approved." But I have never seen these labels, and no wonder -- according to the Humane Society, the second, stricter category has NO participating producers who sell to supermarkets.

Another strategy for getting eggs I'd feel good about would be buying from a local producer or Community-Supported Agriculture program where I can see that the hens are doing ok or where people I trust could vouch for their welfare. That's definitely not out of the question, but it will take some research.

Then there's the question of health -- is it worth it to upgrade to organic or Omega-3 eggs for health reasons? Well, the main advantage touted with organic eggs is the pesticide-free feed consumed by the hens. But is pesticide  residue from chicken feed really a health risk in conventional eggs?

I have found this a tough area to research; there are plenty of health food advocates out there who simply state that conventional eggs contain pesticide residues, but any reference to studies I've found online are too technical for me to decipher. The only straightforward advice I could find came from Shape magazine, which advised that eggs contain a minimal level of pesticide residue if any and that I needn't worry about it.

As for the claim -- touted on many health food Web sites -- that organic or free-range eggs contain more nutrients?

Well, it does seem sensible that chickens allowed to indulge in a natural diet of bugs and grass would pick up a broader range of nutrients to pass on to their eggs than those pecking at ground-up corn all day. But I was unable to find anything resembling a study on this, and besides, as I said before, there is no guarantee that an egg labeled free-range or organic comes from a hen that ate anything different from caged hens or cage-free ones kept in a warehouse. A chicken eating organic corn is still eating corn.

I'd say that if you take the health claims seriously, you've got to buy eggs from a source that you know allows its hens to get outside and eat the good stuff.

As for me, my reading has encouraged me to seek out a source of eggs that are probably more nutritious than the supermarket fare, but once I find my local options, I'm going to look hard at the price before I make any final decisions. I think eggs from hens that get outdoors are probably a bit healthier and a bit kinder, but there are limits on how much more I'd be willing to pay for these hazy distinctions.

That leaves just one fancy label to decide on: Omega-3-enhanced eggs. Fortunately, this is an easy one. There are LOTS of sources out there that advise these eggs are not worth the extra cost. In fact, the Center for Science in the Public Interest conducted a campaign asking the FDA to stop egg producers from claiming Omega-3 eggs provide any extra health benefits at all.

5
Average: 5 (6 votes)
Your rating: None
ShareThis

comments

30 discussions

Add New Comment

CAPTCHA
This test helps prevent automated spam submissions.
Guest's picture
organic

I eat since 2 months of bio-egg, to me it tastes very good and also not expensive

Guest's picture
Guest

You might not be able to raise poultry in your backyard, but you could probably keep quail. Try about 10 quail, it should provide your egg needs. Use about 4 quail eggs to one chicken egg in receipes.

cheers
Craig

Guest's picture

The best eggs are fresh ones.

I have hopes of getting six layers, next Spring. I need to construct the housing.

There really is no substitute for your own home grown.

Guest's picture

Wow. For years, I've been buying dozens of Omega-3 brown eggs labeled "cage-free" and "vegetarian fed." I've heard about the cage-free debate, but never even thought about the validity of the Omega-3 claim. I'll now be taking a second look at my options at my grocery store. Thanks for the great research!

Guest's picture
Guest

...or no, Egglands Best eggs taste way better than plain old eggs. I like my eggs sunny-side up with just a tiny bit of salt (or hard-boiled), so I can really tell the difference. We're lucky to have a farm market on the weekends during the summer months -- one of the vendors sells eggs from happy, healthy chickens for $4.50/dozen. Those are the best eggs ever!

Their meat prices are astronomical ($15.00/pound for most cuts of grass-fed, pastured beef)...but if you really consider your eating habits -- eat primarily vegetarian, cut out all junk food, etc. -- having quality meat once or twice a week won't break the budget and it is so much better for you!.

Guest's picture
Jan

Come buy my eggs.
Our hens roam the farm and only come in to lay or roost at night! They find plenty of scrumptious food to eat. I sell the eggs for $2 a dozen and the yolks are a deep yellow/orange!
Nothing better than home grown eggs!

Myscha Theriault's picture

Good one, Carrie! That's a ton of research, and really breaks it down for me. I'm totally digging this series so far. Looking forward to seeing the next article.

Julie Rains's picture

I've wondered about the best eggs to buy as there is quite a price difference between the house brand and the designer eggs -- thanks for the research.

Guest's picture
Shanna

I make my decisions on eggs based on whether anitbiotics were used. I don't know if I overlooked it but that didn't seem to be addressed in your article.

Guest's picture
ladygoat

Don't forget to take taste into consideration! And in this case, there's no substitute for simply trying out different brands. I've found that the cheapest eggs just don't taste nearly as good (and don't do as well in cooking either), and that's reason enough to spend more.

Carrie Kirby's picture

Thanks all for sharing your solutions! Jan, I WISH I could buy your eggs for $2 a pound. Don't suppose u live anywhere near Chicago? But it does inspire me to make time to stop next time I'm out of the city and see a sign advertising eggs on a country road.

Shanna, I am also curious about antibiotic-use in eggs, but I actually didn't come across any info on this -- aside from general statements on health-food sites saying "organic eggs have less antibiotic residue" -- and have not seen antibiotic-free on labels. If anyone has info about antibioitic use in laying hens, please do post it here.

I blog at www.shopliftingwithpermission.com.

Guest's picture
G

Keep in mind organic doesn't mean pesticide-free, just synthetic pesticide-free.

Guest's picture

Great article Carrie,

You really helped explain a complicated topic. Unfortunately, its only bound to get more complicated. As more people try to purchase green and healthy foods, big business has taken an interest in helping fulfill this demand.

Unfortunately their interest is often more concerned with making a profit than providing a truly organic and healthy product.

Some just are dishonest and place labels on their products that are simply not accurate. The problem is that there are simply not enough regulators to police the industry.

A producer can simply place "100% organic" or "free range" on their products knowing full well that no government agency will ever test them for compliance and if they do the fines are so insignificant that it makes no difference in the company's behavior.

If a company isn't downright dishonest, they'll simply use their lobbying power to make the labels so weak that they're meaningless.

According to Consumer Reports, for example, a Georgia chicken producer persuaded his congressman to slip an amendment into a 2003 bill that stated if the price of organic feed was twice the cost of regular feed (which often contains heavy metals and pesticides) then the livestock producers could feed their animals the regular feed and still label the product organic.

That's one of the reasons I love your suggestion about getting produce from your local farmer either directly or through a CSA. You get healthier food and support your local small businessperson (farmer) instead of big agrobusinesses.

Maggie Wells's picture

Where I live there are many ranchers and farmers that do things organically but cannot afford to have their farm or ranch be organic certified. So again, knowing where your eggs and meat are coming from is probably the best bet of all. A local producer might be your perfect organic and just not have the label.

 

Margaret Garcia-Couoh

Guest's picture
Teaspoon

Check your local farmers' markets. Hubby and I eat 4 eggs a day, and we buy free-range, organic eggs at our farmers' market for $3/doz. Our local food co-op also sells local, free-range eggs, and we buy those when we don't make it to the farmers' market. They're a bit more expensive, but definitely worth it in terms of both taste and animal welfare in comparison to "conventional" cheapo eggs.

Guest's picture
Guest

if you would like more info on egg nutrition check out Mother earth news guide to living on less on news stands now. full of all the nutrition onfo on eggs and how to make a coop.
10% less fat,34%less cholesterol, 40% morte vitamin A, and four times as mouch omega 3

Guest's picture
martha in mobile

I think your CSA/farmers market idea is the best bet. Raising chickens isn't hard, it's easy...but you have to be prepared for certain realities such as dealing with predators (and possibly injured chickens) and what to do with hens that are too old to lay eggs but still have years to go in their lifespan. After just a few years, you could have a flock of "pet" chickens rather than "egg" chickens. We harvest our chickens when they are no longer laying (and use them for making stock and food for our dog and cat), but not everyone is (or wants to become) handy with a hatchet.

Guest's picture
Guest

a little more on the omega-3... my past research showed that the amount of omega-3 was very low relative to what we're supposed to have in our diets, and therefore (to me) not worth the extra $$.

Guest's picture

I keep a few laying hens for our eggs. Having direct experience with laying hens really opens one's eyes.

I would never pay a premium for eggs from "vegetarian diet" hens. Chickens are omnivores, and they will happily devour fish skins, insects, worms, or any type of meat they can swallow. I get it that the advertisement for vegetarian diet is meant to emphasize a lower standing on the food chain, and no possibility of canablistic feeding practices, but still. No points there.

"Organic" on the label to me means very little. The hens can be kept in disgusting conditions and given a very unhealthy diet and still have their eggs labeled organic. If I had no better choices, I'd go with organic over conventional though. It's little; but it's something.

Ditto "cage-free" or "free-range." The animals can be crammed so closely together in "cage-free" facilities that routine doses of antibiotics are necessary, and the animals often never see daylight or breathe fresh air. Very few "free range" chickens spend more time outdoors than it takes to get them to whatever slaughtering facility they end up in.

"No antibiotics or hormones" is a good start, but only a start.

I would say your best bet is that CSA or a local farmer or backyard poultry enthusiast. You say it may take some doing, but here's the thing: once you find a good source of eggs and establish a buying pattern, there's no more hassle. You could set up a regular purchase or barter with a backyard poultry keeper and that's that. Ask around at farmer's markets if any farmer knows of hobbyists in your immediate area.

Guest's picture

And this is why I'm VERY glad that we have backyard chickens! I know exactly how they're treated, what they eat, how healthy they are, and even their different personalities.

I know not everyone can have their own chickens, but for those who can manage it, why not take advantage of such a great opportunity! And if you can't, try to get eggs from real people, not big companies. Support your local farmers -- or neighborhood chicken owners.

Guest's picture
Guest

Given four individual nests in a coop, four hens will prefer to nest together in one if they can all fit. Uncaged, there tends to be more cannibalism among them, but if that seems more "natural" to people then so be it. Just don't kid yourself that being involved in a pecking order is giving your average chicken a more fulfilled existence. I agree we should treat our fellow creatures with compassion, but I think all this presumption of what makes a chicken "happy" gets a little nutty sometimes.

Guest's picture
Guest

The Humane Society of the U.S. kills more than 90% of the animals brought to them, just like PETA. Chickens are not the most intelligent animals. They are sentient, to some extent, but nowhere near the level of a person. The truth is they are far better off in cages and fed an organic diet than running around eating bugs, rocks, etc. and attacking each other. They're quite filthy, as are all birds. Recognize them for what they are, semi-conscious animals that we use for food. Ever seen the episode of "Dirty Jobs" that includes scooping poop at a Turkey house? Birds are little different than rats with wings. They aren't capable of language or planning. Can a chicken be "happy?" Most likely not. "Happy" requires a level of thought which birds cannot possess. Thoughtful birds are from cartoons. Cartoons are not reality.

Guest's picture
Guest

Please read John Robbin's book "Diet for a New America". Chickens are intelligent creatures and millions of them are not being treated properly at these factory farms! If you are going to buy/eat eggs, buy local! Or go vegan (scrambled tofu is awesome! you'll never miss the eggs, and it's 100% cruelty-free)

Guest's picture
Karen

In Barbara Kingsolver's wonderful book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle," her daughter Camille provides a sidebar (p. 239) in which she cites a research study from the New England Journal of Medicine: "Eggs from chickens that ranged freely on grass have about half the cholesterol of factory-farmed eggs, and it's mostly LDL, the cholesterol that's good for you. They also have more vitamin E, beta-carotene and omega-3 fatty acids than their cooped-up counterparts. The more pasture time a chicken is allowed, the greater these differences."

Guest's picture
Guest

As somebody who raised chickens growing up, I disagree that chickens are filthy, cannibalistic animals. It varies according to the breed and sex (hen/rooster), but they only get aggressive or wallow in filth when people house them that way. Chickens evolved to graze in small family units (several hens and one rooster) on large praries and the scrub/brush transition areas that surround them. They graze a broad variety of insects and grains, eat small stones to aid with digestion, and in turn their droppings fertilize the ecosystem the same way a herd of horses does. When it gets hot, they dig a little hole in the dirt to stay cool, and this "bath" keeps their feathers louse free.

Then people came along and started cramming large numbers of unrelated poultry dozens to a cage or coop, away from their natural prarie/brush ecosystem, and wonder why they get aggressive (or poop ... like duh ... stick a dozen people into a pen with no toilet and watch what happens). If you build them a decent coop for night protection and either allow them to roam free in your yard during the day (though you'll lose some to predators) or let them graze in a movable pen, you'll find they're docile, fairly intelligent, pleasant creatures that get along rather well with each other (excepting roosters, who are always ornery). PBS has a cute documentary about chickens.

Guest's picture
jenny

I'm not sure that all the eggs at all farmers markets are free range. The one I go (Little Italy, San Diego) has several different vendors and I think one of them may have battery eggs.

I buy my eggs from one of the vendors I know(schraeder farm, valley center) has free range eggs and I'm happy to spend the extra to have eggs from happy hens!

Thanks for mentioning this!

Guest's picture
Guest

The Harris Teeter chain sells Certified Humane eggs.

Guest's picture

@Guest

I can definitely tell when our chickens are happy. They may not win any IQ contests, but they are sweet creatures when treated right. Our hen runs up whenever she sees me. And our chick loves roosting on my husband's arm. She even makes a soft purring sound. Both LOVE scratching, dirt baths, and eating fresh greens bugs -- which they're far more interested in than their chicken feed. They are truly a joy to watch.

Guest's picture
Em

Carrie, you should have numeroius options in Chicago. Find a producer-only, organic farmers' market and you should find one or more egg producers who are delighted to tell you in detail how their birds are raised... probably with photos.

For the last five years, in two small midwestern cities, I've been able to find eggs from several producers who free-range their hens on grass - generally mixed pasture with a variety of nutritious greens and plenty of bugs. One uses a school bus as a coop; the girls are out all day, come in only at night and are driven to fresh pasture a few days after the cows leave, so they can get extra, er, insect goodness while keeping down manure flies. It's a beyond-organic system that guarantees the most nutritious possible eggs. I've paid $2.50-4 per dozen for these eggs, and seen the same quality at $5-6 dozen in major cities' farm markets.

The difference between beyond-organic eggs and supermarket eggs, especially in the summer, is NOT subtle or hazy. The good eggs have brilliant orange yolks that stand high and round, firm whites, and a delicious rich egg flavor. Worth every cent and then some.

More importantly, you can find producers who raise their own chicks with *gasp* real hens. Why is this important? Because chicks raised with healthy adults consume beneficial avian intestinal bacteria along with their food, much as human mothers' breastmilk benefits their babies. The chicks' GI tracts are colonized against salmonella and goodness knows what else, making both eggs and meat much safer to handle and eat.

Guest's picture
eatbettereggs

Very helpful article. The humane society link to the labelling guide appears to be broken. It's here at www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html.