There is so much confusion when it comes to purchasing eggs in the United States. Should we buy free range, cage free, natural, vegetarian-fed, hormone free, antibiotic free, or organic? Or are those just clever labels to garner a few more pennies at the check-out?
The confusion comes from the fact that most of the terms on egg cartons have very little regulated meaning. Sigh.
For example, “free range” simply means that chickens have access to the outside… that could be through a small door in the factory out to a small pen or fenced yard. The birds do not have to actually GO outside, they just have to be able to go if they want to. (1)
“Cage free” eggs just mean that the birds have “freedom to roam during the laying cycle.” So crowded buildings, poor ventilation, and no natural light would be acceptable conditions. No cages, though, that’s good, right? (1)
“Certified organic” has the most regulations, but most people are surprised to find that farmers can still use cages (though not solely), provide minimal access to the outside, de-beak, vaccinate, and then bathe the eggs in chlorine. (2)
The terms “pastured” or “pasture-raised” have no regulations in this country. Swell. However, eggs from chickens truly allowed to roam a pasture, eating greens/flowers/bugs/worms, soaking in the sunshine, and bathing in the dust have very interesting results. Check out the nutritional data for yourself. (3)
So what’s a consumer to do?
Find a local farmer. Ask to visit the farm. Look at the chicken operation. Ask to see what they’re feeding the birds. Ask about egg collection and storage procedures. It’s worth a couple hours of your time on a Saturday to really know what you’re getting.
Don’t feel like you have time to do that? Do some research. Places like Natural Grocers have clearly defined standards for their three levels of egg production. (4)
What about A Little Farm?
Our girls spend most of their days roaming our pastures and pine forest. They eat bugs, worms, mice, grasses, flowers, and whatever else they can dig up in the woods. We also provide daily fermented grain (mostly organic wheat and oats, occasionally other grains/seeds like rye or sunflower seeds) in addition to free-choice dried feed. We supplement their diets with Thorvin brand kelp (5), Fertrell brand minerals (6), and calcium from oyster and egg shells.
We move our flock strategically through the forest with the help of portable electric fence and a mobile coop. The coop is where they sleep and lay eggs. They also have access to it any time during the day to escape heat or inclement weather.
Moving the birds provides them with fresh forage while avoiding their past droppings. This movement also helps us avoid overgrazing our fragile silvopastures. The birds stimulate new growth through pruning back the plants and scratching up latent seeds. The period of rest after grazing gives the plants time to recover and gives the pasture time to sanitize before the chickens return.
The bottom line:
All eggs are not created equally. Know the terms, know what’s important to you, and make an educated purchase.
We tend to be a little partial about our pasture-fresh eggs. But try them for yourself. We think you’ll be impressed.