Written by Jan Walsh
Photography by Beau Gustafson
What kind of eggs do you buy? With so many descriptors on the labels, you might be fooled into thinking you are buying clean, non-GMO eggs when you purchase eggs with the following labels: all natural, farm fresh, no hormones, vegetarian diet, omega-3, cage-free, and free-range.
Whenever possible I buy my eggs from local farmers, who have pasture-raised their hens and not fed them GMO feed. In spring and summer months it is easy to find these eggs at local farmers markets. The eggs have bright orange yolks and are full of flavor verses dull, pale-yellow-yolk eggs, which come from caged hens that are not allowed to forage for a natural diet. These local farm eggs are also far more nutritious than commercially raised eggs. But in fall and winter months, my access to these farmers at local farmers’ markets is reduced, leaving me to rely on labels in the grocery store.
Unfortunately, with the exception of California, 95 percent of eggs in the U.S. come from chickens raised with other chickens in battery cages. Inside these cages housed with other chickens, each chicken has no more space than its body fills. The cages are stacked in long rows in warehouse-sized barns. With no access allowed outside their cages or to the outdoors for sunlight and air, these birds are so cramped that they cannot even spread their wings. And most often these chickens are fed a mixture of GMO corn and feed made from animal byproducts.
Some labels are used for marketing purposes rather than information purposes. Currently the FDA follows a dated 1993 policy for “all natural” labels that does not account for GMO fed animals and birds. Thus both the “all natural” as well as the vague term “farm fresh” are virtually meaningless when shopping for eggs and many foods. “No hormones” is another misleading label because it is illegal to give chickens in the egg industry (verses chickens raised for poultry industry) hormones. No chickens that produce eggs for the egg industry are given hormones, regardless of whether or not your egg labels says so or not.
You are what your chicken eats. They should be eating protein. Thus “vegetarian diet” should make you avoid the eggs rather than purchase them because chickens are not vegetarian. They are omnivores that would naturally get most of their protein from worms, grasshoppers, and other insects if they were raised in the wild. Hens fed a vegetarian diet are likely eating GMO corn fortified with amino acids. And the Omega-3 label most often means the hens’ corn feed is supplemented with some flaxseed.
What is the difference between cage-free and free-range? Cage-free hens don’t live in cages. But they do usually live in large aviaries with approximately one square foot of space for each hen. Poor air quality and being pecked by other chickens puts cage-free chickens’ death rate twice as high as caged chickens. Free-range means cage-free with access to the outdoors. Yet this access typically is a few small doors that lead to a screened in porch with cement, dirt, or a small amount of grass. And the industrial fans used to blow the ammonia outside these barns create such strong wind currents in these small doorways that most all of the chickens avoid the doors. Since the vast majority of free-range chickens never go outside, cage-free and free-range are the same. And unlike in poultry production, there’s no government oversight of the term “free-range” regarding eggs, so companies are left to interpret it as they see fit.
There are a few meaningful egg labels. Egg producers who use the “organic” term are subject to USDA regulation. Organic eggs must come from chickens that are free-range, fed organic feed with no synthetic pesticides, and receive no hormones or antibiotics. But organic eggs are most often laid by birds that also live in crowded, industrial aviaries. “Non-GMO” foods have no genetic modification in its original seed source. The Non-GMO Project is a third party organization that certifies products that claim to be non-GMO with an orange butterfly on the labels. And “pasture-raised” is also a meaningful label because these birds spend most of their lives outside with access to a barn. Some have spacious fields and some are more crowded. Many are able to eat a diet of worms, insects, and grass, along with corn feed, which may or may not be organic. When I can’t buy from my local farmer and must buy in the grocery store, I look for the USDA Organic label, the Non-GMO Project label, and the term “pasture-raised” with square footage per bird listed on the carton.