If I had a dollar for every time I've had a conversation with someone in front of the egg case at Whole Foods that starts with "wait... what's the difference?!" I'd be able to build a luxury coop for my chickens.
And yes - I still buy eggs from time to time, even though I have 4 lovely lady-hens in the back yard that lay luscious orange-yolked eggs... they don't lay during the darker months of winter and I LOVE me some eggs.
The reality is, the difference between eggs can be huge from one egg to the next, all because of how the chickens who laid them were raised. You see, chickens need grass, bugs, weeds, and SUNSHINE to do their magic and make the incredible, nutrient-packed superfood that is an egg. And that is why you need to be very picky and SPECIFIC when shopping for eggs!
The Best Choices:
Pasture Raised Eggs
This label implies that the chickens are raised full-time in grassy pasture lands, have plenty of space to roam and stretch their wings, and can forage for what's in season, along with lots of different bugs & grubs. Pasture Raised chickens can be fed supplemental feed, which is often necessary in winter months; for this reason, Pasture Raised + "Organic" is even better, so you know they are getting Organic, non-GMO feed. Organic will also mean a third-party audit of the farm happens, which is never a bad thing. As there are no official standards for this label yet enforced, the best idea is to check out this Organic Egg Scorecard to make sure the brand you buy checks out. Or get to know the farmer!
Animal Welfare Approved
This certification is rare but growing. It means all the same things that "Pasture Raised" implies: chickens are raised with full outdoor access to grassy pasture, and are able to move freely, socialize, and engage in natural behaviors. "The only USDA-approved third-party certification label that supports and promotes family farmers who raise their animals with the highest welfare standards, outdoors, on pasture or range." (according to the Animal Welfare International Website.) The Animal Welfare Approved label is defined by a formal set of publicly available animal care standards, and compliance with the standards is verified by a third-party audit. It's also free to farmers, which means the certifying body isn't in it for the money. Check out more details (on all animal food products) here.
Labels to avoid:
Cage Free- only means that the hens are not kept in small confined cages together. They can still be kept indoors in VERY crowded and dirty spaces on concrete, with no sunlight, for their entire lives. Practices like beak trimming and forced molting (to increase laying capacity) are common. These birds can be fed GMO crops, animal by-products, and given antibiotics and hormones as well.
Free Range- is supposed to mean that the chickens have access to outdoor areas, but this rarely is the case, is not audited or enforced, and the same things can happen to these free range birds that happens with cage-free (GMO feed, antibiotics, hormones, beak trimming, etc.). Don't worry, I'm not going to torture you with any more pictures of poorly-treated animals.
Certified Humane - This one shocked me: it sounds like it's on the right track, but according to Animal Welfare International, Certified Humane means: "Access to the outdoors is not requiredfor meat birds, egg-laying hens, and pigs; however, minimum space allowances and indoor environmental enrichment must be provided. Beak trimming of hens and turkeys is allowed under certain circumstances." Still not a good choice, as an animal lover.
Organic- only means that the feed given to the hens must be certified organic, but does not ensure outdoor access, or any other standards of care in raising the animal.
Omega 3 Eggs - again, no required standards of care or outdoor access, this just means that the chickens were fed extra flax to help them produce more Omega 3 fatty acids in the eggs. WHICH happens naturally with chickens that have been properly raised outdoors!
Vegetarian Fed- Simply stated, a bullshit term (pardon my french) as chickens are not meant to be vegetarians; they are meant to eat all sorts of bugs and grubs and worms. (And some of you may remember my lovely lady hen Peeps catching a sparrow a few months ago and eating it... full cannibal beast mode. I wasn't happy about it, but still... proof in the pudding.)
Natural - just literally means nothing. Simple as that. In fact, when I see "Natural!" on ANY food label, it makes me very suspicious that the food producer is trying to trick me into thinking something is "good". But what food would you want that is UN-Natural?!? Yikes.
Where do I find the best eggs?
- Shop at your local Farmer's Markets, and ASK before you buy - how are these chickens raised, specifically? What is their outdoor space like? What do they eat? Beware of all the other not-so-great labels at these markets; the only way to know is to ASK!
- Check out Eat Wild to find local farmers for all organic produce & properly raised proteins in your zip code.
- Try your local health food stores, and use this Egg Scorecard to check each brand before you buy.
- Get a few of your own backyard chickens! (Disclaimer - blog post about raising chickens coming soon, and I suggest you read it first - they are, um... more INTERESTING to raise than you might imagine!)
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Thanks for reading and happy yolking!