An Egg-cellent Egg
Recently I was walking through the refrigerated section of the grocery store, and I decided to glance over at the egg section, just out of curiosity. I was met by a section much larger than I expected, and many more types of eggs than I thought existed. I started to look at the cartons and read the labels, and lots of different terms and adjectives and certification labels popped out at me. Some of the more common claims were those such as Organic, cage free, pasture raised, free range, vegetarian fed, and non-GMO. As I read through them and compared the eggs in the carton I started to realize just how confusing this array of options was and how hard it might be for someone unfamiliar with the poultry industry to know which eggs are the highest quality, and why. So in case you have ever been in that same position in the egg aisle trying to figure out what all the labels and certifications mean, I have decided to take the time and present a few of the industry standards and certification protocols, along with why some of those can be misleading, in order to clear up some of the confusion about the different types/quality of eggs.
One of the simple differences in eggs, and the easiest to spot, would be the contrast between white eggs and brown eggs. This is actually one of the least important differences as well. The color actually has very little to do with the quality or nutrients of the egg, it is simply an indicator of what breed of chicken the egg came from. Most white eggs come from Leghorn chickens, the breed of choice for most commercial egg farms. This is because the Leghorn is a very thin and light-boned chicken that lays a lot of eggs and has a high feed efficiency level. This comes at the cost though of not being able to weather harsh outdoor conditions very well, and hence they are not often used for backyard flocks where the chickens are outside.
The most prized of the egg labels, and often the highest priced, would be the Organic label. This is certainly the most stringent and most regulated certification, and one of the more misleading. Less than five percent of American layer hens are Organic. Some of the standards for being certified Organic is that the chickens receive no hormones antibiotics or synthetic vaccines, that they receive feeds that are GMO free and certified Organic, and that they have access to the outdoors. There are two reasons though that eggs that are Organic are not as good as they sound. First, the rules state that the chickens cannot receive any vaccines, which is good, but the rules also state that the Organic standards start at 24 hours after hatching. This means that the chicks can be given the normal vaccines during their first day of life, and still be considered Organic. The second flaw in the Organic certification is that the "access to the outdoors" rule has been interpreted very loosely. Many Organic egg farms have been able to get by only providing the chickens with a "porch", a closed in structure with a roof and a hard floor. So when you envision the chickens roaming about on pasture just as they please that is not often the case with Organic certified layer chickens.
Cage free is one of the most simple labeling certifications. The birds are simply not raised in cages. However they are still raised in large barns and often never see the light of day. They do get to roam around, but with only about 2 square feet per bird there isn't much room to do that in.
Vegetarian fed is a label that sounds good, but does not take into account the fact that chickens were designed by God to be omnivores. They need bugs and such and animal protein to remain healthy and produce healthy eggs. The vegetarian fed label also says nothing about their living conditions, and many of those birds are also raised in cages.
Pasture Raised and Free Range sound very similar, and in some ways they are. Both require access to the outdoors, and neither have regulations as to the feed that can be fed to the chickens. The difference is in the amount of pasture required. Free Range requires that the birds have access to the outdoors, but does not specify the amount of space needed per chicken, and does not require that space to look any certain way. So in most Free Range opperations that outdoor space tends to look like a small dirt lot with one or two small trap doors that the chickens don't like to go out of even when they can. In most cases these eggs are no better than Cage Free. Pasture Raised is a little more strict. it requires that the chickens have at least 108 sqare feet of outdoor space per bird, and that the pastures be rotated, at least a little. This is much better, but still not perfect, as the quality of forage in these operations tends to be very low. This is because the paddocks are very few and the chickens get moved to fresh grass rarely, and because the chickens like to stay close to their protective shelter. This means that the grass near the hen house gets a lot of traffic and stomped out, while the grass away from the building gets almost none and grows to be over mature and loses most of its nutritional value. Pasture raised, while not perfect, is probably the most reliable label that you will find in the grocery store.
So now that we have a little bit better understanding of the commercial labeling and jargon, and what it actually means, I would like to go into a little detail on how we raise our laying hens here at Grass Corp, and why we do things the way that we do.
It all starts with the grass. We believe that there is an immense benefit to the chickens and to the eggs when the hens consume as much grass and bugs as possible, and we have structured our production practices around that belief. It all revolves around our "Egg-mobile" wagon. This portable structure gives the chickens everything that they need, water, feed, shelter, roosting space, and a dark place to lay their eggs. We then surround this unit with a portable electrified netting to keep the chickens in and the critters out, and that completes our system that enables us to move our chickens often and give them unfettered access to all the grass and bugs that they want, providing them with a brand new smorgasbord every two days. Having their shelter and protection so close allows them to feel comfortable when they forage, and allows them to utilize all of the grass in their paddock. This also is very important because chickens are creatures very susceptible to stress, and in high stress environments their egg quality and health will suffer greatly. Another thing that we do to boost chicken health and egg quality is that we make our own feed, wich allows us to make a much higher quality feed than we could buy anywhere else. We use only non-GMO grains, high quality mineral ingredients, and probiotics to make the best quality feed we know how. We also supplement this feed with free-chioce oyster shells, this allows them to get all the extra calcium that they need to produce they highest quality eggs shells.
In this world of confusing labeling and production practices we have attempted to create the best production model possible, and to be as transparent at possible. We have not certified our chickens with any of those labels, as we would prefer that you our customer know exactly how we raise your food. Anyone is welcome to come visit our farm and see for themselves how we care for and raise our animals, and compare our methods with those of the commercial alternatives.