healthy eggs

How to Buy the Healthiest Eggs

So what do "free-range" and "cage-free" really mean—and are the eggs really better?

How to Buy the Healthiest Eggs

Hens who spend time outdoors lay more nutritious eggs.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—The board of directors of McDonald's is full of bad eggs. Or at least that's what the group plans to keep on the menu. As The New York Times reported last spring, the board advised against mandating that a measly 5 percent of the fast-food joint's eggs come from cage-free chickens. More than 90 percent of U.S. eggs come from caged hens. These birds have a space smaller than the size of a sheet of paper to move around, and live in filthy conditions. Aside from animal welfare concerns, that's bad for our health, too, Pennsylvania State University shows, because researchers recently found eggs raised on pasture are much more nutritious than eggs from their caged counterparts. Not to mention the higher risk of Salmonella contamination in eggs from hens kept in cages.

THE DETAILS: Penn State's study, published recently in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems found that pastured hens—ones kept outside on different pastures where they can exhibit natural behavior and forage for bugs and grasses—boasted higher vitamin and omega-3 fatty acid levels when compared to their commercially fed, battery-cage-kept counterparts. Eggs from pastured hens contained twice as much vitamin E and 2.5 times more total omega-3 fatty acids as the eggs from caged birds contained.

Congress recently introduced a bipartisan bill, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, that would require all eggs purchased by the federal government (for school lunch programs, prisons, the military, and so forth) come from cage-free operations. California and Michigan have already voted to phase out cages in laying hen operations, and there will be a similar measure on Ohio's upcoming voting ballot.

This all brings up an important issue: What exactly does cage-free mean? And how about all of the other labels we're likely to see on an egg carton?

WHAT IT MEANS: There are dozens of claims that manufacturers can make on egg cartons. Some of them are meaningful, but others are just ways to trick consumers into thinking they're buying eggs from happy chickens. (Remember, 90 percent of chicken eggs produced in this country come from the worst type of production system—battery cages.)

In an ideal situation, you would purchase your eggs from a local farmer in your area who raises chickens on pasture with plenty of space per bird, and uses moveable, open-air chicken houses, sometimes called chicken tractors, to protect the birds from predators. (You can look for this type of farmer on Of course, you could also raise backyard chickens, if you have what it takes.

Eliminating cruel chicken cages is a matter of human health as well as animal welfare. The farther you take chickens away from their natural behaviors, the worse the quality of their eggs or meat. (See the Humane Society of the United States undercover video below to learn more about battery-cage egg-laying operations. WARNING: CONTAINS SCENES OF ANIMAL CRUELTY.)

"When you put four or five chickens in tiny cages, they can't engage in normal chicken behavior—pecking in the dirt, dusting. If they're in a cage, they can't do any of these things," explains chicken expert Gail Damerow, author of the classic Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey, 2010). (She hasn't purchased a store-bought egg since 1982.) "The pressure of the wire cages against their feet causes infections, their feathers rub off on the side of the cages. Basically, they're just totally frustrated. They've got nothing to do. They can't run around and eat flies and take dust baths. They just sit and lay eggs—what kind of life is that?" One result of all that stress and cruelty is that confined birds' eggs contain less nutrition than eggs from hens with room to roam.

Here's what the labels on the egg carton really mean:

• "Cage-Free" "Cage-free is certainly not like Old McDonald's farm," explains Paul Shapiro, spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States. But it's a lot better than battery cages, where most eggs are produced. "Cage-free" means that animals are not kept in cages, but generally they are kept inside in an enclosed building. While this is less than ideal, at least this setup gives animals a chance to spread their wings and lay eggs in nest boxes, which is closer to their natural behavior. Cage-free does not imply antibiotics were not used on hens.

• "Free-Range" or "Free-Roaming" Usually these types of operations allow chickens outside of cages in barns or warehouses, but they aren't required to provide the animals any specific amount of time outside—or even exposure to sunlight indoors. There's no third-party inspection required for free-range claims, and the chickens can be debeaked or forced into molting through starvation, according to the Humane Society of the United States.

• "Organic" A USDA-certified organic label means the eggs came from hens that were not enclosed in battery cages, and that must be offered access to the outdoors. However, this doesn't guarantee that the animals ever go outside. Organic eggs come from hens that were fed certified-organic feed, free of antibiotics, pesticides, and other animal products. Forced molting and debeaking are permitted in certified-organic production. Annual inspections are required.

• "Natural" This means that the finished product hasn't undergone certain unnatural processes; in this case, that product is the egg. However, just because eggs are labeled natural doesn't mean a hen wasn't pumped up with antibiotics or other unnatural substances. And it certainly doesn't mean the chickens were raised in clean, humane conditions. For all intents and purposes, natural means nothing.

• "Pastured" Pastured chickens should be housed on grassland in portable shelters that are periodically moved to give the chickens fresh pasture, but there's no third-party inspection required to ensure that's what's really happening. Your best bet is to buy eggs from pastured hens at a local farm that raises the hens organically, ensuring they're not exposed to pesticides, animal by-products, or antibiotics.

• "Omega-3-Enriched" This means hens were fed feed with an increased amount of omega-3-rich flaxseeds. However, pasture-raised hens are already higher in beneficial omega-3s, and they get to be outside. Technically, caged hens could also be fed flax feed, so don't equate this label with better living standards.

• "Certified Humane" This means birds are not kept in cages, but they can be kept indoors. They at least have the space to perform natural behaviors. The program of Human Farm Animal Care sets limits on the number of birds that can be contained in the same area, and outside inspectors perform audits. The program does not, however, require that the animals eat organic feed.

• "United Egg Producers Certified" Shapiro says this, along with "natural," is one of the most misleading claims made on an egg carton. While forced molting is prohibited under this certification, debeaking is allowed, along with other cruel and inhumane practices, such as the use of battery cages.


Published on: April 19, 2010

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no cholesterol

I have heard that if you have a rooster with your hens you will have cholesterol free eggs,is this true?

This is why 2 years ago, I became a chicken keeper.

The fun breeds, the great interaction with neighbors because of them, a happy 3 year old, and of course fresh healthy eggs! I couldn't be happier my husband the carpenter built me 2 chicken coops and runs from recycled materials so I could start this hobby. After one taste of a good healthy, orange yolked egg and we were all hooked. Simply handing some out to neigbor's got them hooked too!

We live outside of town limits and are free to an unlimited number of chickens, in town it is legal to have an unlimited amount if you have more then 1/2 an acre. You can have 4 hens with a permit if you have less land. :)

We're getting some more bantam breeds for fun soon, and those tiny eggs we have compared to the large eggs are so fun for the kids that we make mini fried eggs breakfasts to share on the weekends.

Urban hens

Do you live in a progressive municipality? Many cities and towns are legalizing urban poultry, typically limited to a half-dozen or so birds, with no roosters allowed.

You can generally make an anonymous query to your city planning department. The result of that query will determine how stealthy you'll have to be... :-)

We keep a dozen hens in a "chicken camper" designed for up to three dozen. It features "fence panels" that can me moved faster than staked chicken wire. We rotate it around different areas. It takes two of us about an hour to move it between even difficult situations -- much less if we're simply doing a four-paddock rotation.

(Our last move was especially onerous, as we're "mowing" our lawn with it, as opposed to moving it around a large pasture.)

In British Columbia rural areas, you can keep up to 99 hens without registering them.

Here's an article about our "chicken camper," which is a bit easier to deal with than many little chicken tractors:

Hens in town

I would recommend a small chicken tractor for town use. Your neighbors may never know you have chickens! Hens do fuss a bit over who gets what nest box, but they are not as noisy as roosters, of course. And.... You do not need a rooster to get eggs. :-D A portable chicken tractor would keep the smell completely under control. By moving the tractor over your lawn, the manure would slowly and gradually be spread around.... HOWEVER, standard breed hens are notorious scratchers... they will make your lawn look ugly and have giant holes. Tractors do off the best protection, in my opinion, against predators of all types. (We have 5 chicken tractors, but we live in the country.) ~Good luck!

Pastured chickens/eggs

Regarding freshness, I THINK the "best if used by date" is based on when the eggs are PACKED not when they are layed or gathered. I have read in a poultry book from the 1930s that eggs were kept in cool warehouses for MONTHS, which is wonderful when you think about it.

I also raise my own eggs, which I have kept in our fridge for up to 2 months. I save these for boiling. Fresh eggs do not peel well at all when boiled, but even my 2 month old eggs sometimes do not peel well. I used to think that meant the grocery store eggs must be REALLY old because they usually peel very easily. However, our egg shells are extremely thick and I think this allows more storage time for our eggs compared to store bought eggs that have been bathed in clorine. ????? Maybe someone with a better idea can comment.

Some preliminary questions, I'm going to research raising my own

I live in a regular neighborhood with a decent sized back yard but have three adjoining neighbors. How much noise do hens make? Do they smell? Would they be a bother to next door neighbors? How successful is your outdoor run in keeping the fox out? Does the fox keep trying or eventually give up?

So glad I read this article!

I keep chickens myself. I have a coop with nesting boxes that is typically left open (except for bad weather) to a 20x20 outdoor run. Plus when I'm outside, I let the chickens out to roam around. It isn't safe for them to roam free when I'm not there because of coyotes, foxes, etc. My chickens seem to be very happy with this arrangement. And I'm happy too, especially now that I know my eggs are healthier than store-bought.

This article doesn't mention the freshness of store-bought eggs, and I have been told that eggs are often already two weeks old before they ever get to a grocery shelf. Is that true?

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