For most of us, eggs are a staple in our daily diets but finding ones that are both optimally healthy and raised in a humane way isn’t as easy as you might think—even if you care enough to do some digging. The confusing labels on egg cartons don’t help matters, either.
Phrases such as all natural and farm fresh can be both deceptive and perplexing because they don’t clue you in about the hens’ well-being. Buying only certified organic eggs isn’t a surefire way to guarantee that hens aren’t subject to cruel conditions either.
To shed light on what we should be looking for when grocery shopping, we talked with Betsy Babcock of Handsome Brook Farm in Franklin, New York, about all things eggs and how she’s working to change the industry.
Where do the majority of eggs in this country come from, and what are the alternatives?
“Most eggs in grocery stores are produced in factory farms, with tens of thousands to close to a million hens in a single barn. Caged hen environments still supply 90 percent of eggs sold in the United States. Typical ‘cage-free’ or ‘free-roaming’ barns may still have hundreds of thousands of hens in a single barn, with less than 1.5 square feet of space per hen, poor lighting conditions, and no access to the outdoors.
“Commercial organic cage-free or free-range barns are better, in that the hens are provided natural light, 1.5 feet of space, and technical ‘access’ to the outdoors. Again, there are warehouse conditions with really no ability for hens to exhibit natural chicken behavior.
“Alternatively, there are pasture-raised hens that truly have the freedom to go outside, forage, and act as chickens should act. This is what we do. While [farms like ours] are still a small percentage of the total eggs sold in the United States, our share is growing rapidly.”
Why are ethically raised eggs so expensive?
“Egg prices are determined by the costs that go into producing the egg: indoor space, outdoor space, organic versus nonorganic feed, and pasture costs, plus market factors. The lowest-priced eggs are from chicken farms that have low costs due to the fact that these companies industrialize production with up to a half million chickens in a barn, with multiple barns on site, extremely limited room per hen, and a focus on egg production versus animal welfare.
“As the amount of space per hen increases indoors, so does the cost to produce the egg and the ultimate cost to the consumer. In our case, if hens are provided substantial outdoor pasture to forage—which is, of course, better for the hen and the egg quality—there is additional cost associated with both the land and labor.”
What are places like Handsome Brook Farm doing differently?
“Our hens are raised in an environment that encourages natural chicken behavior. It all starts with the pasture—we provide 108 square feet per hen of outdoor room to roam, along with a spacious barn that allows for rest, nest, and play.
“De-beaking is common practice for all non-pasture-raised environments. Because those hens are in close quarters, they get stressed and will peck each other, causing extreme injury and death if their beaks are not cut back severely. Our hens have plenty of room, so they are not stressed. Therefore, that practice does not take place. We also employ a full-time poultry veterinarian team to ensure the health and well-being of all of our hens.
“This year, we purchased a feed mill and will be providing our own certified organic feed for our hens. In addition to what they find on pasture, hens need supplemental feed to balance out the nutrients they get—and the quality and composition of that feed matters. You can buy ‘junk feed’ for less, but we believe that our hens deserve the best, customized diets to meet their specific needs.”
What should we be looking for when it comes to egg size?
“Egg size is determined by the age of the hen and the hen’s nutrition. When a hen first starts laying at around 16 to 17 weeks of age, it lays small and medium eggs with the size of the egg gradually increasing over time. By 20 to 22 weeks of age, a hen will be laying mostly large and extra-large eggs, with the occasional medium or jumbo egg. If a hen is receiving proper, balanced nutrition, the egg sizes will be as above.”
What about shell color?
“Shell color is like hair color insofar as it is genetically determined by the breeding heritage of the chicken. There is no nutritional difference resulting from eggshell color. However, most commercial white eggs are from hens that are raised in either caged or warehoused cage-free conditions.”
Does the sell-by date on our egg cartons really matter?
“The freshness of an egg has a huge impact on its quality and performance. An eggshell is porous, and as an egg gets older, an increasing amount of air enters the egg. As time goes on, the white and yolk lose their firmness. For the freshest eggs, choose the carton with the latest sell-by date on the end. One cooking tip: For hard-boiled eggs, it is actually better to use your oldest eggs. The extra air between the shell and the egg makes peeling much easier. The freshest eggs will be hard to peel.”