Buying eggs isn’t as simple as it seems. Options at the grocery store are increasing rapidly along with creative marketing terminology designed to lure the consumer into purchasing what they feel would be the healthiest and tastiest. However, as we have consistently seen in the health food world, legal loopholes, lack of accountability by government agencies and corporate profits often determine the final quality of what we buy. So let’s take a look at what’s going on with the egg industry.
The “specialty egg” market (i.e., vegetarian, cage-free, organic, omega-3, etc.) is seeing incredible gains in the marketplace. Companies already in the business of egg production want to cash-in on the profits and many of them have figured out ways to do that without having significant increases in their operating expenses.
Organic eggs are produced in one of four basic ways. Each operating and production style have various interpretations of the organic standards which allows for some leeway and "bending" of the rules. However, each one can be labeled and sold as being "organic".
Pasture-raised– This model uses portable houses that are rotated around so the chickens can forage on new pastures and obtain a portion of their diet from vegetation, worms, and insects which allows them to exhibit natural and instinctive behaviors. This is the gold standard for true grass-fed, pastured, organic eggs and unfortunately, very few farms maintain this type of operation.
Enhanced outdoor access – These hens live in non-movable houses and have ready access to large pastures located adjacent to their home. Roughly 60% - 70% of these birds can be found outdoors at any given time. The fields are often irrigated to promote regrowth of the vegetation however, the pastured area does not change.
Fixed housing– In this type of housing, hens are provided with smaller outdoor runs ranging from just 1 – 10 square feet per bird with most operations providing the minimal amount possible. Sadly, less than 10% of these birds ever even see the outdoors. When more birds are encouraged to go outside, the area can be picked clean in a matter of minutes leaving the pastured area filled with bird droppings sitting on top of plain dirt.
Industrial scale – Here, conditions are maximized for profit and large-sized flocks of up to 150,000 hens per barn, are located in multi-tiered cages to accommodate the large numbers. These chickens are given processed organic feed as their sole source of food and the growers abstain from giving the birds prohibited substances such as antibiotics. They are allowed access to a small scratching area on the floor of the barn which very loosely allows them to be labeled “cage-free.” And the birds on the top levels have stairway access to the floor. Approximately 80% of organic retail egg sales are from this type of industrial farm.
Thankfully, the Cornucopia Institute has compiled a well written and researched report on the egg industry which you can download here. It is an interesting read and likely one that will cause you to rethink the kinds of eggs you are purchasing. In addition, they have also produced an “Organic Egg Scorecard”which shows the location, market area and most importantly, provides a rating of the listed farms for their egg quality and integrity of their product. This is an excellent resource that should be handed out to all of your nutrition-minded patients.
Eggs are an amazing superfood and should be included wherever possible in our daily diets. It is vitally important that we select eggs that will deliver as many of these nutrients as possible. My all-time favorite egg recipe is a quiche!