Last time I outlined how the chickens live, but there are also labels that talk about what they eat and with what they are supplemented. (I know, right? Man, that’s a lot of labels.) Chicken feed is primarily grain-based (corn, soy, wheat, sorghum, barley, oats), but can include animal protein like meat and bone meal, and also includes supplemental vitamins and minerals.
Vegetarian-fed eggs come from chickens that were fed a vegetarian diet. As I said before, chickens are naturally omnivores, they eat meat. This is the single most mystifying label to me. Why would you feed a chicken a vegetarian diet? “It doesn’t make a lot of sense in terms of the diet of the hen,” Satrum told me. “However, the Internet has done a good job of scaring people about animal proteins. Meat and bone meal is a by-product from slaughter houses and it’s a very good product. It’s cooked, it’s cleaned, it has lots of protein, phosphorous, and calcium. If it wasn’t used as an animal feed it would probably be in a landfill somewhere. So it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. We don’t do it for the bird; we do it because it makes the marketing easier.” You heard that right, from a third-generation chicken farmer, his answer was basically: because the Internet told them so. So how do farmers make sure these chickens get the proper nutrition from a vegetarian diet? Satrum told me they supplement with non-animal derived protein often from soybean meal and mined calcium and phosphorus. Instead of feeding the chickens an existing product that has lots of the nutrition they need, we put it in a landfill and feed them stuff we have to mine out of the earth … OK, then.
Omega-3 enriched eggs are from hens that have been fed a diet supplemented with things like flax seed, marine algae or fish meal to increase omega-3 levels. There are different types of omega-3 fatty acids, but the bottom line is that they are believed to play an important role in your health: normal blood clotting, brain function, prevention of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and some inflammatory and auto-immune diseases. Chhatriwalla told me that several studies have shown that the supplementation of chicken feed with omega-3 fatty acids will produce eggs significantly higher in omega-3’s, some as much as a 40 fold increase. “That being said,” she said, “levels that high would not taste good due to the fishy aroma of omega-3’s.” All eggs naturally contain about 30 mg of omega-3 per egg, supplemented eggs around 100-200 mg. The tricky part, Chhatriwalla pointed out, is that no one really knows how much omega-3 you need. Health experts recommend one serving of omega-3 rich foods per day (around 1000 – 1500 mg). You can get that through about a serving of fatty fish like salmon, a tablespoon of canola or soybean oil, or a handful of walnuts or ground flaxseed. You would have to eat six to seven omega-3 enriched eggs to get that requirement.
Hormone-free eggs are quite possibly the most blatantly misleading label, because there aren’t any eggs that have added hormones. The USDA does not allow the use of hormones in poultry production. This is so misleading that the FDA requires any label making claims about no added hormones include a statement that says, “Hormones are not used in the production of shell eggs” in order to prevent consumers from thinking some eggs do contain added hormones. That’s not roundabout at all…
Antibiotic-free labels are also a little misleading because all eggs in the US are antibiotic free, even if they don’t say so, because by FDA regulation, any eggs produced by hens being treated with antibiotics for illness would not be sold for human consumption. “In general antibiotics are used rarely in commercial egg production, because pullets, young hens, are vaccinated for appropriate diseases and management conditions keep the vectors of disease away from the birds,” said Hermes. “Stated simply, commercial layers raised indoors rarely get sick.” He also pointed out that in organic production, any medicated birds, young or old, must be removed from the organic stream, none of their eggs can be labeled organic. I found that part particularly interesting. So what happens to the “organic” hen when she’s recovered and off antibiotics? Can she be moved to a non-organic stream? “That is what is supposed to happen,” said Hermes, “however that assumes that the organic producer has a place to put these now ‘non-organic’ birds and an outlet for non-organic eggs. The large commercial producers with some dedicated non-organic production could do this, however the logistics are difficult in these cases. The small producer with a few dozen or even a few hundred hens may not have an outlet. In most cases I suspect that these birds are euthanized.” That right there is a reason, in my opinion, to not buy organic or antibiotic-free eggs. If you needed a reason.
Organic eggs come from hens that have been fed an organic diet without any direct-fed animal protein (but I think they can still eat bugs if they catch them.) I’m including this in the food and supplements section because the organic feed part is the only thing that really differentiates these eggs. Certified organic eggs are verified by third-party certifiers as mandated by the National Organic Program and must also meet other requirements: they have to be cage-free, they have to have access to the outdoors (but amount, duration and quality is undefined – for example it could be a parking lot and the birds may not even use it) and the use of hormones and antibiotics are prohibited (the hormone part is redundant since it’s prohibited in all poultry production, organic or not.) We’ve already discussed all those other elements, so the only thing new is the certified organic feed. You’re probably already familiar with my thoughts on organic, but if not, see here and here. To sum it up, you’re not limiting your exposure to pesticides in any meaningful way by eating organic eggs, and there is no substantial nutritional difference.
Oh yes, there’s more. If just the different ways of raising hens and what they’re fed isn’t enough, there are also claims on labels that talk about the third-party certifiers. It seems this is a way to make it easier for the consumer to know if they’re getting what they think they’re getting; a voluntary accountability system, so to speak. That would be fine if there weren’t a handful of different ways to get certified, making it even more complicated than before. Each certification system has different requirements for the duration and quality of indoor/outdoor systems, how much space each bird gets, what they eat, etc. I asked both Karcher and Hermes if they could recommend one certification system that they thought did it best. They both agreed they’re just variations on a theme. In fact, when I asked Karcher which one he could recommend that could help a regular person feel like they’re doing the “right thing” without getting duped he said, “Ha! When you find the answer to this one, please share!! Seriously though, every third party certification is, in my opinion, a one-up from the other one to entice the consumer to believe that this particular certification is the best. If consumers take the time to read the certification programs, they would find slight differences amongst them. Depending on what a ‘regular’ person believes, will ultimately dictate which program is the best.”
At the very least, most of the third party certifiers have definitions for what free-range and pasture-raised means, so that’s something. I’m not going to go more into the specifications of all the certification systems because it’s too lengthy, and I had a difficult time finding a good scientific source that listed each certification system without disparaging the others. Eighty percent of all eggs produced in the United States are produced under the United Egg Producers certified guidelines, so that’s a good place to start. Others to look into are: Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, and Food Alliance Certified.
One very last point that’s worth noting: it’s easy for consumers to change their opinions on how laying hens should be raised. It’s not so easy for producers – they have already committed significant amounts of money to certain production systems. Imagine that you’ve already got millions of dollars dedicated to conventional housing systems and then California voters decide they don’t like your system. You can’t make that change quickly or easily, and, ironically, if you’re a small producer it might be financially impossible. It’s going to take time, and as consumers, we have to appreciate that. “In my experience of nearly 27 years in Poultry Extension,” said Hermes, “the poultry and egg industries are committed to producing safe, high quality products for their consumers, while being dedicated to the welfare of the birds. So while public opinion in recent years has decided that caging is bad for hens, even though the science favors cages for their physical well-being, industry can’t make sweeping changes that cost millions of dollars over night.”
That’s it! That’s all I think you need to know on eggs. Now I’m off to have an omelet. I hope this helps you use your Momsense to make informed decisions as well. Stay tuned for the next in this Breaking Down the Labels Series: a look into labels for the actual poultry we eat.