Friday, June 8, 2012

Eggs: Pastured vs. Free Range

So, are the eggs you're eating from chickens that are Pastured?  Or, are they labeled Free Range?  Why should you even care?  Mother Earth News has a great little article that decodes some of these terms.  First, though, let's establish why you should even care about these labels. Consider this excerpt from the article:

"Conventional egg production — that is to say, the vast majority of egg production in the United States — is not a pretty business. Laying hens are crammed five or six to a cage in stacked rows of cages designed for automated feeding, watering and egg-collecting. As many as 100,000 birds can be confined in a single warehouse, each bird with less than 67 square inches, about two-thirds the size of a sheet of paper, to call its own. The crowded conditions lead to cannibalism and other destructive behavior, so the birds’ beaks are cut off at an early age, a procedure that could be likened to cutting off a child’s finger tips, in terms of its impact on the animals’ dexterity and sensory experience. The industry favors windowless warehouses with prolonged artificial light to stimulate maximum egg-laying. When egg production drops off, food is withheld as a way of sending the birds into a forced molt followed by another round of egg laying before being disposed of.
The adoption of practices like these has paralleled the spread of salmonella as a bacterial contaminant in eggs — the reason you’re cautioned not to eat raw cookie dough or Caesar dressing anymore. Crowded conditions, genetic uniformity and the widespread use of antibiotics in industrial agriculture favor the development of new and potentially more devastating pathogens."

Convinced?  Okay.  Let's define some of those labels you'll see on supermarket cartons. 

1.  Cage-free.  This is a popular one right now.  This basically means that the chickens are not kept in tiny cages their entire lives and are instead allowed to move about in large warehouses.  They are probably not allowed any fresh air or outdoor access.

2.  Free Range.  Originally intended to mean what it sounds like it should mean, this term has become a bit corrupted over the past few years.  These chickens are allowed some outdoor access.  However, that outdoor space may not be pasture.  It may be dirt floor or even concrete. 

3.  Pastured.  This term has arisen recently (since the term free range has become so abused).  Free Range was originally intended to mean that chickens were allowed access to fresh air AND fresh grassy ground.  Since, producers have come to use free range to simply mean access to any type of outdoor space, the term pastured has come into play.  A pastured chicken has access to all the grass, weeds, insects, and worms that make her eggs or meat more nutritious and safe for us to consume.  Pastured chickens may be truly free to roam anywhere their little chicken hearts desire, or they may be penned in some way to protect them from predators and moved frequently to fresh patches of ground (as they are at our house).

So, pastured chickens are also free range, but a free range chicken may not be pastured.  Follow?
Now, it should be stated that NONE of these 3 terms is actually regulated by any food authority.  That is, of course, why some terms become corrupted and new ones arise to fill in the gaps. 

What about Certified Organic eggs?  Well, at least someone is regulating the use of this term!  The USDA makes sure that eggs bearing this label come from chickens who've been fed an organic, vegetarian feed, are antibiotic-free and cage-free, and allowed at least some access to fresh air (how much time spent in and the conditions of the outdoor space are still "hotly debated").  These chickens may have been debeaked or starved in order to force them into molting.

So, if you aren't able to maintain your own pastured flock in your backyard, I'd advise you to look for the Pastured label first!  You'll know whether it's the real deal by the color of the yolk.  Eggs from truly pastured hens will be bright orange in color and have an excellent taste that you'll recognize as different from it's lackluster competitors.

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