Many people say they want to buy food raised humanely and safely, but they still have to put an adequate meal plan together within their budget. Price is the biggest objection potential customers raise with small farmers and people raising backyard chickens.In the October column, I talked about the high costs of backyard and small-farm local eggs, and why they might be more expensive than what your neighbor with chickens is charging you. Many people do not have a neighbor with chickens or a connection with a small-scale farmer, but they do want to buy the ìnext bestî eggs without spending $5 to $8 for a dozen. You can buy ìcage free, organicî eggs from the supermarket, but the labels and cage-free aspect could be deceiving. Are there benefits to eating eggs laid by chickens raised in true pastoral settings? According to nutritional studies, yes. Homestead-style eggs have a third less cholesterol, twice the Omega-3 fatty acids, three times more Vitamin E and seven times more beta carotene, according to a 2007 study. And there is a lot to be said for the firm consistency and color of yolks that are only hours or days old, compared to up to two months old for grocery eggs.Here are some realities of egg labels.Behind the ìbest byî dateLisa Steele of the Fresh Eggs Daily blog and television show says eggs can be sold for 30 days after they were packaged in the carton, and can be marked ìbest byî up to 45 days after packaging. On each carton, Steele says there is a three-digit code from 001 to 365, near the ìbest byî date; with 001 being Jan. 1 to 365 being Dec. 31, leap years notwithstanding. That tells you what day the eggs were actually packed into the carton. Steele says the eggs can legally be packaged as long as 30 days after they were laid, although most commercial farms insist eggs are usually packaged within 72 hours.Cage-free isn’t reallyCalifornia was the first state to require eggs raised or sold in the state to be raised without ìbattery cages.î Michigan later banned the caged chicken eggs, and Ohio issued a moratorium on new permits for egg producers using cages. However, 90 percent of eggs sold in the U.S. are still laid by hens locked six to a cage in large buildings, each with about as much space as a piece of notebook paper.There are many phrases used to describe how hens are housed. Sometimes, it seems egg carton marketers are paid by the word. The more happy-sounding phrases there are on the carton, the more expensive the eggs. Some are strictly defined by the USDA or other organizations. Others have no meaning whatsoever. And few, if any, mean what you think they mean.
- Farm fresh, all-natural: These are the most meaningless labels. Every egg is from a farm of some sort, and they’re legally required to be (sort of) fresh.
- Cage free: Most producers simply removed cages and allow the chickens to move freely about the building. However, the relatively small amount of space per hen is about the same. The hens are almost always still ‘debeaked’ to prevent them from pecking each other.
- The ìpecking orderî is a real thing in chicken society. Flocks will separate themselves into ‘harems’ of one rooster to 10 to 12 hens, and the pecking order will establish itself relatively safely. When several thousand hens are able to mill about a tightly enclosed building, the pecking order is never constant. Even in operations that separate the space into ìcolony units,î they are stocked with between 60 and 140 hens each. This is stressful on the hens, and the additional stress hormones find their way into the eggs.
- Free range: This means that chickens must have ìaccess to outdoors.î Some smaller producers might label their eggs free range when they mean pastured. Many producers are simply adding a door to their traditional confinement hen houses, the door can be open for as little as five minutes per day.
- Pasture raised: There is no legal definition. In order to be ìcertified humane pasture raisedî by the Humane Farm Animal Care group, the chickens must have 108 square feet of space and be outside at least six hours per day, with shelter for predator protection and inclement weather. Check out this link for more information on humane farm animal care group: http://certifiedhumane.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Std14.Layers.6A.pdf
- Organic: To receive the certified organic label, they must only be ìfree rangeî (cage free plus access to outdoors), and fed organic bulk feed.
- Vegetarian fed: This one is actually a red flag. Chickens are not vegetarians. They are omnivores, and will eat worms, grubs, bugs and even mice if they catch them. A ìvegetarian fedî label sounds like a good thing, but means the birds have absolutely no dirt access at all because the producer is guaranteeing they haven’t eaten any of their naturally favorite foods.