When I was younger I never thought much about eggs. I didn’t even really like them that much. Then I saw and tasted farmer’s market eggs. And at a different time Wayne, my hubs with the culinary school background, made me good eggs. Apparently all I had ever had were overcooked sad eggs but now I knew happy, delicious eggs. So if you don’t know and you don’t care to know – stop reading. Otherwise, here are some basics on egg labeling and what those labels mean.
Those Cheap Eggs
The deal with those cheap eggs at the grocery store is that they are usually the bottom of the barrel with the worst taste, the worst animal welfare rating, and *arguably* the least amount of nutrition. All eggs come from chickens but these chickens often spend their entire lives in a cage no larger than a sheet of notebook paper. Sometimes the cages don’t have true bottoms so the chickens little feet become deformed trying to stand on wire. Often they are “de-beaked” which means their beaks are trimmed in such a way that they can’t peck at one another, because they are so close and so stressed that they get aggressive. The animals don’t get any exercise, they don’t get to do any of their normal chicken things, and they are pretty sick – so they use a lot of antibiotics. If you want to see what this looks like google “battery cage chicken”.
This is two steps forward and one step back. Usually this means the hens don’t live in cages but in some cases it just means more hens live in bigger cages. Even if they aren’t in cages they live in big barns with no access to the outdoors, and this is where it gets confusing. There are not a ton of regulations so sometimes, these are small-ish farms with a reasonable number of hens in a reasonably sized barn. The hens have space to roam and dust bathe (chickens get clean in dust – it’s weird and looks like they are seizing) and be alone and scratch and stuff. In most places, though, it’s a lot of chickens in a big barn. So many that they don’t have much more space per chicken than a battery cage and it’s even more stressful because the chickens low on the totem pole (chickens have a thing called a “pecking order” where the big dawgs bully the little guys) cannot get away from the others. There is so much poop that they use big fans to try to pull the ammonia out, but often the chickens have respiratory problems.
In the worst case it’s the exact same situation as above but the chickens have access to a small concrete pad that is screened in to protect from predators. In the better cases these are farms that give their chickens supervised access to a nice big fenced in area anytime the weather is ok and there aren’t predators actively lurking. The difference is pretty huge and you don’t know what you’re getting unless you can research the farm that raised them.
This is what most people think of as free range. Chickens have access to huge amounts of pasture and can roam basically wherever they want. This is what our chickens enjoy – but there are drawbacks. Almost half of our original flock has been taken by predators and I’m positive one of the Reds hides all of her eggs from me. Our eggs have dark yellow to bright orange yolks because these hens eat a hugely varied diet of greens and bugs and sometimes frogs and mice. (Forreal,theyeatmice) (seetheleftyolkinthepicture).
So now you know. I would encourage you to buy as far up the chain as you can afford. Pastured eggs sell for $6-$7/dozen in my grocery store but the quality is far different than the $1.50/dozen eggs. And many farmers sell cheaper than that (ours are $5/dozen) because they cut out any marketing and distribution costs by selling directly to you. I hope that helps!
PS Egg color is dependent on breed. Brown eggs are not any better than white eggs except that most sad eggs are all white because sad egg people use leghorn hens. Our eggs are pink and blue and brownish and cream but their insides are all exactly the same.
PPS *I put a disclaimer on the nutritional claim because even though I think that’s probably true based on the way the yolks look and the way I feel after eating them, I have not seen any real scientific evidence to back that up. The only articles I’ve read are from fru-fru organic hippie websites and it’s good to be skeptical.