In The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan likens grocery shopping to a literary experience because intense the label-reading it entails. He writes, “I enjoy shopping at Whole Foods nearly as much as I enjoy browsing a good bookstore, which, come to think of it, is probably no accident: Shopping at Whole Foods is a literary experience, too. That’s not to take anything away from the food, which is generally of high quality, much of it “certified organic” or “humanely raised” or “free range.” But right there, that’s the point: It’s the evocative prose as much as anything else that makes this food really special, elevating an egg or chicken breast or bag of arugula from the realm of ordinary protein and carbohydrates into a much headier experience, one with complex aesthetic, emotional, and even political dimensions.” (p 134)
Pollan continues, remarking how these labels which are supposed to streamline the consumer’s shopping experience by helping them narrow down what they want are instead confusing the consumer. Indeed, navigating one’s way through the produce aisle or dairy section can be confusing.
At a recent family party, a few of us were discussing the conundrum of buying eggs. Cage free? Organic? Brown? Vegetarian fed? More Omega-3s? Since when did buying eggs get so complicated? My visit to Marin Sun Farms last week helped me realize that the many different facets of raising chickens of course results in dozens of designations for how the laying hens are raised and coaxed to produce eggs.
To demystify the inscrutable egg labels glaring at customers from the egg case, I’ve turned to Mark Bittman for some help. In his cookbook How to Cook Everything Vegetarian—and I can’t stop singing this cookbook’s praises—he has a helpful reference section called “The Facts About Egg Labels.” Bittman writes,“Probably the most important thing you can know about buying eggs is this: If you can get those produced by a local farmer, do. Otherwise, there are so many meaningless and misleading claims that trying to know your way around buying eggs has become more than a little tricky. In fact, much of the information that has always been on egg packages is standard and can often be mostly ignored; sadly much of the new labeling is equally useless.” (p 162)
Whew! This bleak statement almost makes me want to throw in the towel and buy the cheapest eggs at the market instead of finding the most naturally raised eggs. From watching the movie Food Inc. and my other research, however, I know I still don’t want to eat eggs that are raised in an environment where chicken cage is stacked on chicken cage and the chickens never see grass or sunlight. In Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver puts it plainly: “If you can envision one thousand chickens in your bathroom, in cages stacked to the ceiling, you’re getting the picture.” (p 91) Not exactly the kind of place where I want to get my food from.
My aversion to raising chickens in confinement is twofold: (1) I believe that the chickens and eggs produced in this manner are not as nutritious as they could be because the stress the animals undergo undoubtedly affects the quality of their meat and eggs. (2) Raising animals in such a confined environment is not natural, and I do not believe it values life. Farmer Joel Salatin in Food, Inc. observes that if you start to view animals this way, you’ll start to view your fellow human beings this way. These are the reasons I do not want to say “What the heck” and just buy the cheapest eggs at the market.
Back to the labels. Bittman has some good news about USDA regulations regarding hormone use in chickens: “It’s worth noting that no chickens are (legally) raised using hormones; it’s against USDA regulations, so the label “raised without hormones” is meaningless for eggs—they all are, or at least they’re supposed to be.” (p 164) OK, so you can pretty much ignore the label “raised without hormones” and rest assured that all chickens in the U.S. are supposed to be raised without hormones.
Bittman offers definitions for some of the common labeling on egg cartons:
“Free-Range (AKA Free-Roaming): Implies that the birds are not kept in cages and sometimes have outdoor access, though it can be just a door open at some point in the day. “Free-range” as defined by the USDA applies only to chickens used for meat, and not egg layers, so there are no USDA standards for so-called “free-range” eggs. Buyer beware.”
“Cage-Free: The birds are not kept in cages, but no outdoor access is guaranteed.”
“Natural: Probably the most abused and misunderstood label for eggs (and many other foods). In fact there are no standards for “natural” eggs. This label essentially means nothing, certainly not that the eggs were laid in an organic, sustainable, or humane environment.”
“Omega-3 Enriched: Sometimes called “designer eggs,” these have nearly six times the amount of omega-3 fatty acids than standard eggs but look, cook, and taste no different. The hen’s feed is supplemented with a mix of vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids derived from flax seeds, fish oil, and/or bioengineered algae; these in turn act as nutritional supplements for the people who eat them. I’d recommend getting your omega-3s elsewhere, but these are hardly harmful.”
“Vegetarian Fed: No animal by-products are included in the feed. If it were true, “100% Vegetarian-Fed” would be a more secure assurance of feed quality, but unfortunately it’s not regulated or enforced.
“There are also some labels that are associated with a specific set of voluntary rules and regulations and monitored by third-party auditors.”
“Organic (Certified Organic): If you see the USDA Certified Organic stamp, it means the hens are raised without cages and with access to the outdoors; are fed organic, all-vegetarian diets; and are raised without antibiotics, pesticides, and insecticides; it also means the eggs aren’t irradiated. “Certified Organic” is the only way to guarantee your eggs were raised without antibiotics. A new term, “Beyond Organic,” is gaining recognition (though it isn’t USDA regulated) as being stricter than the USDA Certified Organic standards.”
“Certified Humane, Free Farmed, and Animal Care Certified: Technically, these are separate certifications, but they all refer to the animals’ living conditions and treatment; guaranteeing a minimum amount of space; access to fresh air, water, and food; and limited stress and/or noises, among other things. Each certification is overseen by independent associations whose inspection regulations are approved by the USDA, but they are not part of a USDA regulatory program. Participation is voluntary.” (p 164)
In sum, if you can’t buy eggs from a local farmer, your best bet is probably USDA Certified Organic Eggs.