Thursday, October 8, 2009

My Hens Lay Golden Eggs!

My hens lay golden eggs! I hadn’t appreciated this fact before, but now I do. The eggs that I collect each night are free range, cage free, hormone-free, organic (albeit not certified), humane (again, not certified), free-roaming, vegetarian-fed, natural, fertile, and even Omega-3 Enriched! So how much do you think they might go for in a grocery store?? See? They’re golden. This picture is a collection of some of the variations we've collected. The tiny eggs are from chickens just starting to lay eggs and the jumbo one is from our over-acheiver hen.

Egg cartons have a lot of terms on them. A friend sent me an e-mail with some definitions and as I read it, I thought two things – 1) my eggs are valuable and 2) my hens have it good. I do remember the days of standing in front of the egg selection at the grocery store contemplating the labels. It was really hard to decide what was worth paying more for. Certified Humane seemed like a good thing, but Free-Roaming might be better. Are Fertile eggs better for you? And of course I was looking for organic. Well, here are some definitions that might help clear it up or just might confuse you more.

Certified Organic: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access (although there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing birds meaningful access to the outdoors). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

Although it sounds like some less-savory characters could game this system, certified organic is probably a good thing, unless you’re a hen. While, I don’t really know what forced molting through starvation is, I’m guessing it means withholding food so that your birds lose all their feathers. I’m not sure why you’d want to do this, unless it’s to keep the molting to a schedule. Hens don’t lay eggs while they are molting. My hens seem to be taking turns with the molting thing, so it’s not an issue for us. My neighbor’s hens all molted at once, so we gave her eggs. Debeaking means to cut off the sharp end of the hen’s beak so she can’t hurt anyone else. When birds are crammed together in close quarters they may fight, just like my kids do in the car. Debeaking keeps them from drawing blood. If your hen is bleeding it’s a really bad thing. I’ve never seen it, but all the books say that the other hens will attack her and eventually kill her. Chickens don’t have any morals, apparently. So organic is all well and good if you don’t mind your chickens beakless and subjected to starvation from time to time.

Free-Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of "free-range" for some poultry products, there are no standards in "free-range" egg production. Typically, free-range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access – it might be a concrete slab or a grassy pasture. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. However, there is no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Because of their more relaxed living conditions, these hens produce fewer eggs, making those eggs more costly. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation may be permitted. There is no third-party auditing. Free range eggs generally have the same nutritional content as other eggs.

I used to think my girls (and boys) are only considered free-ranged part of the year (the non-vegetable garden season), but apparently because they have access to their outdoor pen they qualify as free-ranged all year, even when they aren’t pooping on my porch and digging up my mulch. Seems to me, free-range could mean a lot of things and you shouldn’t take the carton’s word for it. It would be helpful if you could talk to the farmer or if there was more information offered beyond the label. At my natural grocery store, there are pictures of the hens pinned up along the coolers where the eggs are, so you can see from whence they came. The hens are outside in the grass and look very happy.

Certified Humane: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

Debeaking doesn’t seem very humane to me. Maybe it’s humane to the birds around you, but if you’re the one having her beak cut off, that just doesn’t sound very pleasant. Again, this seems like a fuzzy definition. There are very few animals, and pretty much no farm animals, I can think of who are happy living inside all the time. But at least they must be able to nest and perch and take their dust baths. For those of you who are curious, chickens have this crazy need to roll in dirt. They actually seek it out, dig a hole and then lay in it and roll around. Then they stand up and shake out their tail feathers (ha! Another chicken phrase!) to get the dust out. The first time one of my hens did this I thought she was dying or grievously injured. I called my chicken-expert neighbor in alarm and she assured me this was a natural thing chickens do. Now I just mutter curses at them when I trip over freshly dug dust bathtubs in my run-in shed.

Cage-Free: As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as "cage-free" are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting, and spreading their wings. Debeaking and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

It’s good to be cage-free, but again without the blue sky up above you, what’s the point? And if you read carefully, they aren’t crammed in so tight they can’t spread their wings – lucky birds. But I didn’t see anything about dust baths, so cage-free girls might be a little nutso with no fresh air and no bathing. Plus, again with the debeaking and forced molting, not the life for me. My hens just don’t know how good they have it.

Free-Roaming: Also known as "free-range," the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in "free-roaming" egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage-free. There is no third-party auditing.

Ditto, above notes on free-range.

United Egg Producers Certified: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. By 2008, hens laying these eggs will be afforded 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens may be confined in restrictive, barren cages and limiting their ability to perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.

Wow. I’m glad my eggs aren’t certified by the United Egg Producers. This might be a certification to avoid. It’s like Wal-Mart stamping a Mass Market Producers certification on their own products. The official certification makes you think it’s a good thing, but when the people doing the certifying are also making the profit it’s meaningless. No living thing should have to live the way most chickens do on traditional poultry farms. You can read about it in Omnivores Dilemma or watch it in Food, Inc. I know first-hand how stupid chickens are, but I also know they have personalities and display emotions like fear and anger. I even think they display joy when I arrive with a box of stale cereal or uneaten popcorn. I’m not a vegetarian and I plan to raise some chickens for meat this year. Still, I believe all living things are entitled to dignity and decency even if their ultimate purpose is to end up on my dinner table. (hmm – that should prompt some e-mail from a few vegetarians!)

Vegetarian-Fed: These birds are provided a more natural feed than that received by most laying hens. This term, like grass-fed, is not regulated by the USDA, so unless you know your supplier’s farming practices this label is largely meaningless.

OK, here’s my issue with this. My hens are fed a vegetarian diet. The feed I buy does not contain animal byproducts and I don’t feed them bacon, but they do eat bugs. Lots of them. And I’m sure that even a caged chicken reaches out and snags a fly or a gnat or a mosquitoe from time to time, so really, how can any chicken be a vegetarian??

Natural: Currently there is no legal definition of “natural” as it relates to food products. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture any food that contains “no artificial ingredients or added color and are no more than minimally processed,” may be considered “natural.”

I’m sure you’re smart enough not to be fooled by that “natural” label by now.

Fertile: These are eggs that, when incubated, will develop into chicks. They are no more nutritious than other eggs and usually cost more. Usually fertile eggs are cage-free and come from hen houses where roosters roam as well, which some consumers believe is a more natural habitat. As for taste, it's negligible—once cooked, only a true egg aficionado would taste any difference.

What is a true egg aficionado? I think my eggs all taste great and I certainly couldn’t tell you which ones are fertile and which ones aren’t. There’s no visible difference, so don’t worry that you’re going to crack open a fertile egg and find a half-formed baby chick.

Omega-3 Enriched: Eggs carrying this label have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids than other eggs. This is achieved by mixing flaxseed, a grain high in omega-3s, into the hen’s feed. Omega-3s are a type of unsaturated fatty acid essential for healthy human metabolism that the body cannot produce. This type of fatty acid is thought to benefit the cardiovascular system, reduce inflammation in the body, and reduce risk factors for chronic diseases, such as cancer, arthritis, and heart disease.

These eggs are probably worth paying more for. I buy flaxseed, which is expensive, and mix it in with my chicken feed. I’m always looking for more ways to get Omega-3’s in to my family.

Hormone-free: It may as well read "rip-off"! Because the use of hormones in poultry has been banned since the 1960s, all eggs are by law hormone-free. If a carton offers this claim alone, you're wasting your money if you pay extra for it.

Good to know, huh? We consumers sure are gullible.

Here’s a few more tidbits about eggs that were passed along to me:

Does Size Matter?Generally, egg size reflects the age of the hen: the older she is, the larger her egg. Breed, weight, and living conditions (such as heat, stress, overcrowding, or poor nutrition) can also affect size. Extra-large, large, and medium are the most common varieties, but you can also find jumbo, small, and peewee.
Egg grades—which include AA, A, and B—refer to the ratio and quality of white to yolk and to the condition of the shell. Grade AA and A eggs have thicker whites; firmer, more round yolks; and cleaner shells than Grade Bs. Nutritionally speaking, however, eggs are the same regardless of grade. So if you're paying up for a bigger egg, you're buying size and nothing more.

Store Smart—and Save!Properly refrigerated, eggs can keep up to one month beyond the "best before" date printed on carton. Keep them stored inside the carton, securely fastened. Eggshells have thousands of tiny pores; never store eggs in an open basket or box, as they will absorb odors from other foods. Also, though it may sound counterintuitive, don't keep your eggs in the special egg unit on the inside door of your refrigerator. Though it may be handy, it actually prevents proper airflow to your eggs.

Here’s what I know about size and storage –
The really big eggs are sometimes double yokers, which is cool. Egg comes in all kinds of colors other than white and brown. Our Aracana chickens lay green and blue eggs. Really, they do. Our Bard Rock chickens lay light brown eggs just like you see in the grocery store, and our Rhode Island Reds lay beautiful deep brown eggs that are sometimes speckled. But the shades of the eggs vary day to day and I don’t know if that has to do with diet, temperature, or just their mood that day. It is amazing to see the variety.

I’ve kept fresh eggs in the refrigerator for 3-4 months and they are still fine. If an egg goes bad you will know it before you crack it. Remember all those pores mentioned above, a rotten egg will stink up your entire fridge, so don’t ever throw away an egg because it might be bad – take a whiff. Other chicken farmers have taught me that a fresh egg just plucked from the nest will keep on my counter for three weeks. Unless it’s really hot, I leave our family eggs in a bowl on my counter – they look nice and truly they’ve never gone bad.

I know you’re thinking – it’s not the rotten egg I’m worried about, it’s the one with salmonella. Very few (I couldn’t find any) cases of salmonella poisoning come from a person eating a homegrown egg. Here’s what Consumer Reports had to say about homegrown eggs:

While eggs are indeed a leading cause of salmonella poisoning, the bacteria that causes the infection may be more likely to breed in the cramped confines of factory farms than in free-range, backyard chicken runs. And people tend to eat home grown eggs when they’re fresher, and thus less likely to be contaminated….

And here’s some information from Consumer Reports for those of you concerned about eggs and your health. (I have to take this moment to note that my husband has genetically high cholesterol and in the past year while he’s eaten more eggs than ever before, his cholesterol has actually gone down! My money’s on the huge amounts of flax seed meal I’m sneaking in to his food, but still!)
But in truth, all eggs can be good nutritional choices, containing not only protein but also vitamin D and choline, a nutrient recently linked to a reduced risk of birth defects and possibly breast cancer. While eggs are relatively high in dietary cholesterol, most people can eat about six a week without worry. Even those of us with high cholesterol levels can safely consume them in moderation, as long as they watch out for other sources of cholesterol. And in early July, the Food and Drug Administration announced new rules aimed at reducing salmonella contamination in store-bought eggs.
Eggs can become contaminated when a laying hen is infected with
salmonella enteritidis and passes the bacteria to the egg before it is laid. If the egg is not refrigerated, the bacteria can grow inside the uncracked, whole egg. So the new rules place greater restrictions on large farms—those with 3,000 or more laying hens—to ensure the hens are raised in environs free of pests that can spread the bacteria, and that eggs are refrigerated when they’re stored and transported, to prevent the bacteria from growing.

Back to those pores – here’s something you should know. When an egg is laid it has a protective coating on it, called the “bloom”. The protective coating keeps bacteria from getting inside the egg while it is sitting in the hen house or on the counter. All eggs have it unless they have been scrubbed clean to look pretty at the grocery store. Some store bought eggs that have been cleaned are then given a sheer spray of mineral oil to protect them. That’s why they sometimes appear shiny. So next time you buy some eggs at the farmer’s market, you might ask if they’ve been washed off.

See why my eggs are golden?? You can have golden eggs too. Just about anyone can keep chickens, even those of you who live in suburbia or even the city. All you need is a large dog run and a “house” of some kind. Chickens are cheap and easy to keep and they pay for themselves. And you don’t need a noisy rooster to have eggs. (Just in case you were wondering. People ask me that all the time.) You only need roosters if you want to hatch more chickens. I wrote a whole week of posts during Chicken Week, March 2-6, 2009. Check out those posts or pick up a book on Chicken Keeping if you’re curious. One other reason to keep chickens – they make great pets. I don’t believe they are a common allergen. Kids have great fun with chickens. My daughter trained one of ours to walk on a leash (with a small dog harness). They can become very docile and friendly. And did I mention they are cheap? Our original chicks were just $3 a piece, but now they cost nothing to produce!

The Humane Society of the United States. A Brief Guide to Egg Carton Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare. March 2007.
E-mail forwarded to me from the AARP Buyer’s Guide
Consumer, July 24, 2009
My own wealth of experience (or lack there of)

1 comment:

  1. Great info! I thought I knew alot about eggs and I learned tons from this post!