Grade A. Producer-Certified. Cage-Free. Farm Fresh. Free Range. Organic. Natural. Pastured. Humane. Pasteurized.
(Prefer to watch a video rather than read this post? Here’s a good one by the Cornucopia Institute to help you choose good eggs.)
These are the terms you might encounter on a carton of eggs in any given supermarket. And in light of the recent egg-recall, you are probably reading those egg cartons with a closer eye. Since studies have shown that factory-farm conditions for chickens cause salmonella rates to skyrocket, your assumption is that something other than conventional “factory farm” eggs is less likely to be contaminated with salmonella But that depends on what the “something other” is.
Oh, the agony of choices. Especially when you have no idea what the choices really are, and believe me, agri-business prefers it that way. That way, they get all these universities and institutions and consumers trying to do the right thing to jump on the “we only use cage-free eggs” bandwagon, thinking cage-free is synonymous with free-range, and that free-range means organic, and that all these words mean that their eggs come from chickens happily scratching around on verdant acres in fresh country air on farms such as we imagine our grandfathers once tended. And singing.
But did you know that “cage-free” usually means that the chickens are still stuffed into enclosed CAFOs—without windows—so densely that they can hardly move, never go outside, have their beaks cut off, and would die from the poisonous fumes created from the pile up of their own ammonia-rich manure were it not for high-tech ventilation systems? The post-modern industrial hen is nothing like your grandfather’s chicken.
And did you know that free-range can (though by no means always) mean chickens are free to roam about— indoors? And that they could be subjected to practices such as forced molting (starvation) and debeaking?
And while organic chickens must be fed organic feed, can’t be in battery cages, and must be allowed access to the outdoors, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they actually go outside, or that the conditions outside would make that attractive to them.
So what’s a confused, conscientious eater to do?
Well, the Rodale Institute, who is kind enough to provide us confused folks definitions for what’s on our egg cartons, suggests that we “look for pasture-raised eggs from hens fed with certified-organic feed to get the healthiest egg option.” Those are hard to find in the supermarket, but if the supermarket is your only option, buy them when you can find them. The Cornucopia Institute has a handy-dandy “egg score card” so you can see how your brand rates.
What’s a better choice? Well, food source expert Michael Pollan buys his eggs at the farmer’s market because he can talk to the farmer and even arrange to visit the farm so he can know exactly where his eggs come from. If he visited Greenbranch Farm, he’d see that his eggs come from a flock of hens that spend most of their time outside, in fresh pastures, chewing on grass and pecking and scratching for bugs, and eating feed that is free of antibiotics or hormones, though it’s not organic feed, for the time being. He’d appreciate the fact that his eggs were richer in Omega 3s because of the fresh grass in their diet, as well as the biodynamic principle involved in their care: They fertilize discrete parcels of land while eating bugs that might otherwise eat the crops that will follow, or bother their other livestock brethren. And because they’re moved every few days, there is no danger of “over-fertilizing” and they aren’t forced to live in their own muck, and they always have fresh grass and bugs to enrich their diet. Yep, Michael Pollan would enjoy Greenbranch Farm eggs, I’m pretty sure. And maybe even recommend them.
He would definitely appreciate the story of Ned and Eileen Dykes of Twin Post Farm. Greenbranch eggs sell faster than our hens can lay them, so we supplement our supply with eggs from Twin Post Farm, out of Princess Anne. Eileen is a gracious, cheerful woman who I have the pleasure of chatting with just about every week when she phones to get our order.
If you’ve watched the movie Food, Inc., (which I highly recommend), their story may sound familiar.You’ll see on their website that they spent most of their working lives in the commercial broiler production business, for one of the industrial chicken giants, which shall go unnamed. Every so often, the industrial chicken giant would find a new way to get even more chickens to market even faster and cheaper, and tell Ned and Eileen to upgrade or else. “We had our chicken houses with curtains, one of the last farms to keep curtains. They wanted us to do away with the curtains and enclose the houses completely,” she explained. “At a cost of $150,000 to us,” she added.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “What is the benefit, exactly, of having the chickens raised devoid of any sunlight or fresh air?”
“Well, they don’t want them doing anything but sitting around eating and sleeping. That way they grow quicker,” Eileen answered.
“But, doesn’t exercise and sunshine make things grow?” I countered.
“Well, that would be natural, wouldn’t it? But they don’t want to waste those food calories. It all has to go into meat production, not walking around, exploring, scratching. So you have to keep out any distractions,” she explained.
“They should install TV sets in there,” I offered. “That seems to work for humans.”
Eileen chuckled. Then she continued in a serious tone. “The problem is, that new system involved a whole lot of ventilation equipment, since there would be no natural fresh air. And in the event of a power outage, you then would have ten minutes to get the generators up and running to get the ventilation working again, before the chickens would die, from the ammonia in the air. Well, I was just imagining myself in the middle of all those chickens when the power went out. Would I even make it to the door in ten minutes, tripping on all those birds? What if I forgot the flashlight? We had just had enough,” she said.
Her husband, Ned, is a jolly person who always makes my day when he comes by with his coolers full of egg cartons. “Yeah, we figured we had the chicken houses, so we just converted them into free-range hen houses. Business was slower than we hoped at the beginning, but it’s sure picking up now with that egg recall,” he smiled.
Eileen, God bless her, currently cleans each and every one of the 1300 or so eggs they collect each day by hand, under running water in her kitchen sink. That’s pretty much how it’s done at Greenbranch, too, only with about 100 eggs. Maryland regulations stipulate that it has to be running water, not recycled, not a “bath,” and the eggs have to get into the refrigerator within 36 hours of collection.
Both Greenbranch with its 150 or so hens and Twin Post with its 1500 or so hens fall into the small family farm category. Both are struggling to keep up with regulations, and wary of new regulations which may come in the wake of the recall, such as the “pasteurized egg.”
Now I’m used to questions about “pasteurized chickens,” but these days we’re all getting bombarded with questions like, “are your eggs pasteurized?”
The answer is a resounding “NO!” A pasteurized egg is virtually tasteless. And while any flock of unvaccinated hens could, in theory, be at risk for salmonella, the benefits of eating one of nature’s most perfect, unadulterated, foods, in my mind, far outweighs the risk of eating real, farm-fresh, eggs from free-range, pastured, happy hens from family farms.
“We pay close attention to our hens, and I handle each egg personally. If there was something wrong, we’d know it right away, ” said Eileen.
So, who do you get your eggs from? Or, in the words of Farmer Ted’s bumper sticker, “Who’s Your Farmer?“