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In Search of a Good Egg

What makes a good egg? Cage-free. All natural. Antibiotic-free. Pasture-raised. What’s the difference? With the myriad eye-grabbing copy printed on egg cartons, it can be hard to parse health benefit from marketing ploy. While some of the nomenclature is part of highly regulated government certifications, much is subject to minimal scrutiny… giving an illusion of better egg quality and more humane farm practices that aren’t true. Here we break it down so that you can make smart and healthy choices for yourself and your family. In our “egg review” we will be talking about the different labels that you need to understand when shopping for eggs.

STANDARD OR CONVENTIONAL EGGS: Chickens are typically housed in battery cages, which allow only limited movement (often not even enough to flap their wings, with a dedicated space about the size of a sheet of printer paper). The cages are usually wire, with no nesting materials, and the hens get very stressed over laying eggs without a nest as well as not being able to move around. The cages may cover manure piles. Some conventional facilities may not clean these piles for months to a year or even more. The FDA can inspect facilities, but with personnel shortages, inspections are usually kept to situations where a problem or complaint has been reported. Due to public outcry about the inhumane conditions over battery cages, some farms have introduced “Comfort Coops” or “Nest-Laid” caging. This means that the small cages that hens are confined to at least have nesting material provided.

CAGE-FREE EGGS: In industrial farms, cage-free simply means that hens are not kept in cages. But they are still typically packed in, with limited space to move, and are not allowed outdoors. Their feed is not natural, since they are not allowed outdoors to forage naturally. They may be given antibiotics to increase their weight and to address or prevent disease. These chickens are also painfully de-beaked at the hatchery; which is done because the hens have nothing to do, so they start pecking each other. There is some research that indicates that poultry kept indoors have a higher incidence of Salmonella infections, as disease can spread more rapidly in larger, close-quartered flocks. The average size of a cage-free flock in the US is typically a fourth to a third of a caged flock.