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Unscrambling Egg Labeling for Consumers

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Perhaps part of your busy day involves shopping at the local store for groceries. When you stop at the dairy case for eggs, you spot a carton with a picture of green pastures or some other bucolic scene. Here’s a happy looking chicken. There’s another carton with some reassuring words such as “natural” or “free roaming.” You proudly think to yourself that you’re choosing the most wholesome product available for your family.

“Buyer beware,” warns Roger Glasshoff with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service. Very little of the labeling you see in store gives a clear picture about the origin of those eggs. There’s little chance that any of the eggs came from a hen roaming freely in a green pasture, munching on grass and bugs while living in fresh air and sunshine.

Sure, a few small farms still raise chickens the old-fashioned way. But they’re not typically selling their produce to your local grocery or discount store. Glasshoff points out that the USDA has not endorsed a particular label for any type of eggs from pasture-raised or free-range hens, because it’s too difficult to develop a standard. The closest the agency has come is the USDA Organic label, which requires that the hens simply have access to the outdoors at all times, not necessarily access to pasture. Take labeling a step further with the Certified Humane label from a consortium of animal rights groups, and even that certification does not require access to the outdoors. However, under the Certified Humane label, if the egg layers go outdoors, the outdoor area is required to have pasture “where possible.” Why should you care where your eggs came from? Because what’s better for the chicken just might be better for your family, too.

If price is your main concern, a USDA-graded product for about a dollar still offers a basic assurance about food safety, having met some guidelines about how the eggs were processed. Thus, you see a seal for USDA Grade A, AA or B. If you see that grade mentioned without the seal and a specific plant number, be aware that the producers themselves did the grading, without the USDA grader directly involved. When Flour Sack Mama recently purchased several dozen eggs from a variety of stores on the same day, every one passed the old fashioned cook’s test of putting an egg in water and making sure it did not float. A more reliable way for you to check freshness is not only by looking at the sell-by date on the carton, but finding the stamped number that indicates the packing date expressed as the day of the year. The USDA’s Glasshoff says that, ideally, the consumer should look for a packing date no more than two weeks prior to taking those eggs home.

Farmer Tracy Monday has little use for USDA labels. Instead, he chooses to raise hens in a rotating pasture program and sell directly to consumers at Farmers Markets in East Tennessee. His cartons are labeled “Pasture Raised Eggs, Unclassified.” He proudly describes how the hens take turns with cattle grazing a particular patch of grass, what he describes as a “symbiosis” that helps each creature get exactly what it needs from the land while eliminating the need for pesticides or herbicides. His web site for Laurel Creek Meats mentions nutritional advantages over conventional eggs such as lower fat and cholesterol, more vitamin A & E, and naturally more omega-3 fatty acids. He believes in studies that have shown superior nutritional content of eggs from pasture-grazing hens. Crack open an egg from his farm, and the dark orange yolk looks like visible proof to Monday and dozens of loyal customers.

Large-scale poultry operations have also benefited from years of nutrition research, often trying to replicate nature’s results. Even if the laying hens never go outdoors, they are able to eat a mix of food that is, according to University of Arkansas food science researcher, Dr. Casey Owens, “what they need.” She agrees that the pigments from natural grasses may make some egg yolks darker. She says a diet with more corn might also produce a darker yolk than a diet with more of another grain, neither of which is necessarily better. She stresses that a formulated diet works well, with an aim of maximizing egg production. The poultry-industry funded group, the American Egg Board, explains that healthy omega-3 fatty acid content can be increased by added flax, marine algae or fish oils to the birds’ feed. Thus you see many varieties of “Omega-3” eggs on the shelves these days, for an extra cost.

Part of the requirement to carry the USDA Organic label includes using food grown without conventional pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or fertilizers. Guidelines require those hens to eat a more natural, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics. Many hens eating the organic diet are not eating from a pasture. The USDA stresses that whether in organic products or others, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.” As you might have guessed by now, making the organic choice is about peace of mind regarding what’s not in the food, as opposed to getting more nutrients in the egg. While many marketing claims use terms like “natural,” the USDA Organic label is the only one that the government backs regarding the use of a natural diet for the hens. So, in between the basic dozen eggs you can get for a dollar, and the USDA Organic eggs for a premium, buyers need to sort for themselves between marketing claims and facts to know if they are getting anything more for their money.

If you choose not to purchase USDA Organic eggs, but you still want to try a more naturally produced food, you have some moderately priced choices at the store. The Southeastern healthy living grocery chain Earth Fare starts its egg offering with a house brand just above the two dollar price point. The eggs come from the Latta family farm in North Carolina. Earth Fare Community Relations Manager Kristi Kanzig says “We try to bridge that gap for people. The next step, the next affordable option, would be all-natural.” Both Kanzig and farmer Frank Latta describe the eggs as coming from hens eating an all-natural diet that is free of animal byproducts contains about 70% organic feed. Although the hens are not pasture-fed, they are in a cage-free environment that meets some standards for better treatment of the poultry. The Latta family also produces a USDA Organic version of eggs for the store chain. As for the all-natural claims made on the two-dollar carton of eggs, they don’t rely on USDA approvals, but rather on the integrity of relationships between farmer, grocer and consumer.

You’ll find even more of these moderately priced eggs labeled “cage-free” in virtually every grocery store these days. The commercial poultry industry has reluctantly converted some operations to cage-free, mostly after campaigns by animal rights groups such as the Humane Society of the United States. The Humane Society’s Paul Shapiro says “Birds who are out of cages are generally better off than birds who are confined to cages.” He says this is not only a benefit for the animal, but a benefit for the consumer who can be more assured of a safer product because of the better production conditions. He mentions that studies have shown less salmonella risk in well-managed cage-free facilities. The industry-backed American Egg Board defends caging practices, even noting them as safer for the birds. Furthermore, the industry tells consumers that nutrient content is the same wherever eggs are produced.

More of the cage-free varieties of birds are the larger, brown-feathered breeds that tend to produce larger, brown-shelled eggs. Yet, poultry experts say there is really no quality difference between white-shelled and brown-shelled eggs. One farmer explained that the brown-feathered birds happen to be calmer when having to socialize with other birds in a cage-free environment. The Agricultural Marketing Service’s Glasshoff recalls that the trend toward organic eggs started in the Northeastern US, where many of the chickens were laying brown varieties. Farmers have been capitalizing on the consumer’s association between brown eggs and organics, whether or not they follow organic farming practices.

One of the egg industry’s latest answers to protecting against salmonella poisoning is to offer more eggs washed in a special pasteurization process. If you are willing to pay a higher price, you are now able to purchase in the shell what commercial bakeries have had available for years in a pasteurized egg product. Otherwise, it’s up to the consumer to use safe handling and cooking practices to reduce the risk of salmonella. Despite pasteurized eggs being available, consumer advocates at the USDA Meat & Poultry Hotline still recommend cooking all eggs to 160 degrees. Those who favor smaller, less intensive egg production, tend to think they can reduce the risk of salmonella and other diseases inherently with safer practices.

Price being your main consideration, you can probably find a dozen fresh, reasonably safe eggs for very little cost at the store of your choice. If you are interested in getting more omega-3 in your diet, your choices could be those labeled “Omega-3” in the store, or eggs from pasture-raised poultry. If you’re interested in animal rights, buying cage-free eggs can help further that cause. If you can afford it, the USDA Organic label gives you some assurance of a more natural product that benefits both you and the environment. Or, you may choose to support a local or regional farmer with his or her own way of providing a wholesome product. Depending on which industry group you believe, you may or may not be getting better nutrition from one variety of egg or another. Read those labels carefully. Better yet, get to know the people providing your food!

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2 Responses to Unscrambling Egg Labeling for Consumers

  1. Bette August 6, 2010 at 2:39 pm #

    Also, a note about omega-3 enhanced eggs: producers take advantage of consumers’ limited knowledge of the different types of omega-3’s. Eggs are not enhanced with the ‘right’ types of omega-3’s to make them beneficial.

    If you buy them, you are wasting your money.

  2. Bette August 6, 2010 at 2:27 pm #

    The egg’s grade has nothing to do with how it was raised. It’s really a measure of the egg’s quality based on age. A fresh egg will have a small air sac, and when cracked, the yolk will stand high and the white will be compact. They use a unit of measure called a Haugh value.

    Also, note that the date on the eggs is the date they’re PACKED. Eggs can sit around for up to 30 days before they are packed.

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