Deciphering Egg Carton Labels
When I first started raising chickens a year ago, there were some terms that were confusing to me. Specifically, the description of the eggs. For example, when you buy eggs at the store, you can purchase regular/cheap eggs, organic eggs, cage-free eggs, and on and on. But what do these mean, and what should you be looking for when you buy eggs? And if you’re a chicken-raiser, how do you describe the eggs your chickens lay? And is it really important? Lucky for you, I’ve done some super sleuthing and sorted it all out for you.
Traditional Regular Eggs: These are the eggs you buy for about a dollar a dozen. The chickens that lay these eggs are raised in factory farms, in tiny cages that are overcrowded. There is not enough room for the chickens to turn around, and their beaks are often snipped in order to keep them from pecking at each other.
Cage-Free Eggs: This would seem better, right? Chickens aren’t in a cage. While that may be true, the vast majority of these chickens are still raised inside in factory farms, in vastly overcrowded conditions, often walking around in inches of their own poop. Gross. Still not great, right? Well, hold on, we’re getting better.
Free-Range Eggs: Now we’re talking! Except, we’re not really. Free-range conjures up the image of chickens roaming around outside, enjoying a normal chicken life. But what this term means in reality is that chickens are still primarily raised inside, crowded, and provided a tiny “outdoor” space that is in no way adequate for them all. Sigh. So we’re still not doing any better? No worries, keep reading….
Pasture Poultry Eggs: This is a relatively new term, but defines the eggs as coming from chickens that are truly free to roam in a pasture, eating grass and bugs. This is the closest term we have right now to define how chickens would normally live on their own. Chickens are foragers, and Pasture Poultry is what you should look for if this is important to you. You’ll have more luck finding them at farmer’s markets and grocery stores like Whole Foods, Central Market, Sprouts and Trader Joe’s that specialize in healthy foods.
Organic Eggs: These eggs are laid from chickens that eat an organic diet and have not been given antibiotics, hormones or vaccines. To take this one a step deeper, the organic feed needs to come from grain that is grown on land that has been free of pesticides and fertilizers for at least three years, with no GMO’s permitted.
Vegetarian Eggs: This means that the chickens are fed a vegetarian diet, free of meat or fish by-products. I thought this sounded great (and it is, for vegetarians), but when you think about it, it also — by definition — means that the chickens are very likely raised in cages to keep them from foraging on grubs and worms (which would not be vegetarian).
Pasteurized Eggs: These eggs have been put through a pasteurization process in which they are heated to 140 degrees for 3 1/2 minutes, killing all bacteria but not cooking the eggs. While eggs are not required to be pasteurized, it’s recommended for young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems to avoid the risk of salmonella.
I found a great deal of useful information on The Lexicon of Sustainability site — their premise is that words are important and serve as building blocks for new ideas. My purpose in writing this blog post is not to rag on any farm or person, but to help clarify terms so that you can make the best decision according to your values or beliefs. If you think you are eating eggs from chickens living a grand life because the label says “cage free,” for example, there’s just more to the story than that. And if it’s important to you that you and your family eat eggs that are raised as close to nature as possible, some of these terms can be misleading.
I also want to strongly state that each of these terms does not define every single farm. There may very well be great farms that sell eggs that are “cage free” or “free range” and actually have their chickens outside — and you can’t really tell from the label unless you actually know the farm from which your eggs came. That’s where buying locally comes in handy — you have much more information at your fingertips to make decisions that are according to your needs/values.
I really don’t want to be like that couple from Portlandia’s “Is It Local?” episode — I personally don’t have a need to visit the farm where my food comes from, but I do think it’s important to have proper information when making your food choices. Our eggs at Berkeley Farm are organic and laid from pasture poultry chickens, but they are not vegetarian. Many of you know that I went through treatment for breast cancer in 2012, so we try to eat at organically and healthy as possible. I hope this post has helped you to wade through all the confusing terms — words are important!