Due to the lame Time Magazine piece that appeared yesterday, I figured we should look at some real facts about organic eggs vs. cage free vs. conventional and so on.
Eggs come in an array of colors, although conventional grocers usually only carry brown and white eggs. Eggs also come in all sorts of packaging and with all sorts of labels. With all the choices, choosing a simple carton of eggs can be mighty confusing. Following are the basic facts you need to choose the most eco-friendly egg.
The USDA grade shield: When you see this label on the carton it means that the eggs were graded for quality and checked for weight under the supervision of a technically trained USDA grader. USDA grade is NOT the same as USDA organic. USDA grading is voluntary and egg packers pay for the service. Compliance with grade, weight (size), and sanitary requirements is monitored by USDA.
Egg packers who do not use the USDA grading service are still allowed to use statements such as “Grade A” on their egg. Compliance for “Grade A” eggs is monitored by State agencies.
There are three consumer grades for eggs: U.S. Grade AA, A, and B. Grading, according to the USDA, “Is determined by the interior quality of the egg and the appearance and condition of the egg shell. Eggs of any quality grade may differ in weight (size).” U.S.
- Grade AA eggs = eggs with thick and firm whites, high, round yolks free from defects and perfectly clean unbroken shells.
- U.S. Grade A eggs = reasonably firm whites, high, round yolks and are mostly free from defects with clean, unbroken shells. PS, these are the eggs most often sold in stores.
- U.S. Grade B eggs = eggs with possible thinner whites and wider, flatter yolks. Shells must be unbroken, but are allowed to show stains. You don’t see this grade often at stores conventional grocers.
USDA also regulates the official egg weight classes for eggs. The six U.S. weight classes for consumer grade eggs are – Jumbo, Extra Large, Large, Medium, Small, and Peewee.
Other egg labels at the store
Cage Free: Cage Free means just that, exactly – hens not in cages. However, it doesn’t mean that hens aren’t crowded into another tight space or that the eggs are a more ethical choice. These hens might have a better life, but really who knows, all the label means is that the bird is not tucked in a cage for it’s entire life.
Free Range (and or Cage Free): Sometimes you’ll see these labels together. Free Range means that the hens are allowed to venture outside at times. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) “Approves ‘‘free range’’ raising claims on the labels of poultry products if the producer demonstrates that the birds were allowed continuous, free access to the outside for over 51% of their lives through a normal growing cycle.” However, Free Range is not a legal term used by any certifying party for eggs – it’s a meat only deal. There is no meaning behind “Free Range” eggs. No one checks up on this claim in the U.S.
United Egg Producers and American Humane Association: A label, or logo from this organization may mean that egg producers have met somewhat stricter standards requiring how hens are raised, however, it’s far from a regulated system. For example, as reader John points out in the comments below, “The United Egg Producers is a discredited trade organization with a sordid history of consumer fraud and animal cruelty. The “UEP Certified” program allows hens to be confined in cages that provide each animal less space than a sheet of paper to spend her life.” What’s new is that the UEP has comes to a working agreement with the Humane Society of the United States to enact better legislation surrounding hen raising, but it’s only proposed, not on the books. As of now, organic is the only way to go, or no eggs at all, if you want better animal treatment.
Omega-3 enriched: These contain extra nutrients but it’s because of their feed. Just because an egg is Omega-3 enriched doesn’t make it more eco-friendly.
Certified USDA Organic: This is the label you want. Natural and organic are not interchangeable. Free-range, hormone-free, cage-free and anything else you see on a label means very little compared to an actual USDA organic certified label. Don’t confuse another healthy sounding terms with “organic.“
In the past, the USDA organic label didn’t cover issues like cage-free or free-range environments, but newer access to pasture laws mean that organic eggs actually come from hens who are allowed to roam outside once in a while. Organic eggs also come from hens who are fed an entirely organic vegetarian diet. Hens cannot be given or exposed to antibiotics (unless there’s a disease or illness outbreak) and these hens aren’t exposed intentionally to pesticides or growth hormones.
Research on organic eggs
Healthy eggs – A current study by the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) examined the various aspects of egg quality and notes that they found, “No substantial quality difference between organically and conventionally produced eggs.” I’m guessing this study fueled the Time Magazine piece I linked to at the top of this post. ARS food technologist Deana Jones and her team in the agency’s Egg Safety and Quality Research Unit in Athens, Ga., found no health differences in egg quality across the board, no matter the egg label.
To me this suggests a major oversight of the ARS, a subdivision of the USDA, though. They’re saying organic and conventional are the same, but in reality they’re not, due to regulation of pesticides and hormones in organic foods. It makes me wonder what in the flip they think they’re regulating – nutritional content or exposure to pesticides and hormones?
Egg washing – the USDA’s publication “Guidance for Shell Egg Cleaners and Sanitizers” says that compounds used to wash egg shells before selling may be potential food additives. That means the FDA regulates these washes. That said, the FDA has zero published regulations dealing with egg washes. What. A. Shock. With this in mind, no matter the egg, I’d consider washing eggs before eating them, but I don’t personally always wash eggs. More on egg washing below.
Local is better – Mercola notes that organic “Eggs from truly organic, free-range chickens are FAR less likely to contain dangerous bacteria such as salmonella, and their nutrient content is also much higher than commercially raised eggs.” However, he also notes that buying organic eggs from the store is a mistake. He says, “Most states have laws that make [organic eggs] illegal unless all the eggs that are sold commercially are processed in a way that could damage them. Some states require that all eggs receive a chlorine bath and mineral oil coating before they are nestled into their cartons.”
So, yes or no to organic eggs?
I’ll buy organic eggs at the store before I buy conventional eggs at the store. However, your safest and best bet for awesome organic eggs is to go local. This way you can speak to the farmer and you’ll know how the hens are managed, how the eggs are washed and so on. Also with local purchases you get a fresher egg and a smaller carbon footprint (less shipping). Visit Local Harvest to find a farm near you.
No matter the egg, look for non-foam packaging, such as recycled and recyclable materials. After using your eggs recycle or reuse the egg carton.
Does the color of the egg shell matter?
Brown and white eggs cook the same, have the same nutrients and usually taste the same. The main difference is they come from different breeds of hen. Aracauna eggs are bluish-green and are pretty much the same as traditional white and brown eggs but the Aracauna eggs do have a higher cholesterol content. There are both brown and white organic eggs, but both are the same except for color or so says the Egg Nutrition Center in Washington, D.C.
The main argument I hear for brown over white eggs is that brown eggs support genetic diversity in chickens. Once you start researching this, you’ll see some massive debates about it, but all in all it’s a personal issue. Either you’re on board for chicken diversity or not. I have a lot on my plate, so it’s not something I think about much to be honest. I’ll buy organic brown or white eggs depending on price.
Egg know-how & fun for kids
- All I needed to know about sales I learned from my kids’ chicken eggs stand – a cute little ditty.
- Cool kid organic egg recipes – Creepy Ghost Meringues and Spring Rolls with Eggs and Fresh Herbs.
- Fun egg science experiments.
To sum up…
Buy organic eggs, from a local farmer when possible, with any color shell, in recycled or reusable packaging and you’ll be good to go.