True Pasture-Raised Eggs, Organic Eggs, & Misleading Egg Labels
People are motivated to buy clean, whole foods for many reasons, and the “certified organic” label aims to reassure consumers that they are indeed buying healthy foods, free of toxic ingredients and sourced in an ethical manner. However, in the egg industry, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all process. The various labels on egg cartons are a source of confusion and are often misleading to the consumer and here’s why:
Conventional Chicken Eggs
The conventional white egg is the most common. It is most common because it is the most profitable for food corporations. This is what is known as Concentrated Agricultural Feed Operations (CAFOs). This method keeps hens indoors, inside large cages where they are fed a diet of corn and other grains mixed with animal by-products of which they are not designed to eat. Large CAFOs can house up to 80,000 chickens with 1 square foot of space each. Besides the ethical arguments against this treatment, this confinement and dietary approach causes the birds distress, sickness, and shorter lifespans. Though often labeled “natural” or “fresh,” these conventional, mass-produced eggs come from hens in cramped cages exposed to artificial light. These chickens do not roam free nor do they forage for food in a natural environment.
The conventional hens’ diet and living conditions affect the nutritional content of the eggs they produce. Multiple studies have shown that the egg production declines and the nutritive value of each egg declines significantly when compared to pasture-raised chicken eggs. If you were to crack open a conventional egg and compare it to a pasture-raised egg, you visibly see the difference: The conventional egg has a small yolk that is light yellow compared to the abundant bright orange yolk in the nutritional pasture-raised egg.
Organic Chicken Eggs
Other natural phrases are similarly misleading. The organic label doesn’t necessarily mean healthier and here’s why: Farmers who label their eggs “organic” have to follow guidelines in order to use this label. The chickens must be cage-free with outdoor access, fed an organic diet free of pesticides, and be free of antibiotics and growth hormones; however, there are industry loopholes.
These chickens do live outside of small cages, but they are often kept in large, crowded enclosures. They’re not roaming spacious, grassy areas to find natural foods (insects and worms), and they are fed an unnatural grain-based diet, albeit organic and free of synthetic pesticides. Even the manner in which these eggs are sanitized is a gray area and the method is not transparent to buyers. Each state has its own cleaning regulations, and organic egg producers may use chemicals in the treatment process. Quite simply, the “organic” label doesn’t always reflect what buyers think they are getting.
True Pasture-Raised Chicken Eggs
True pasture-raised hens live a vastly different life than the conventional hens. True pasture-raised hens are allowed to roam freely all day with access to sunlight as they naturally do in nature and forage on plants, worms, insects, and anything else edible they find. At night, the hens are sheltered from predators and the elements. These hens are rarely sick, live longer lives, and produce healthier, more nutritive eggs. When compared to conventionally produced eggs, the yolk is a bright orange and the eggs are higher in omega-3 fatty acids, Vitamin A, Vitamin E, while lower in total fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and omega-6 fatty acids.
Now here is where it gets a bit more complicated when using the labels “pasture-raised” and “cage-free.” Many farmers can use the “cage-free” label by only giving their hens “access” to the outside for part of the day. Cage-free, though legally meaning they cannot be caged, are confined in crowded, unsanitary conditions and are also fed corn-based diets. Since the door to their enclosure is usually very small and often closed, these chickens stay inside and are not really free to graze at all. Cage-free chickens are also given antibiotics when necessary and are often debeaked at an early age. Even the terms “pasture-raised” or “free-range” can appear on a label but the hens aren’t allowed on pastures all day.
WFP’s Take-Home Advice
• The gold standard for eggs is true pasture-raised, usually from a local farmers’ market. These are the hens that are allowed to roam freely all day with access to sunlight and forage on plants, worms, and insects in a natural environment. Use www.localharvest.org to find a local farmers’ market near you.
• If purchasing true pasture-raised eggs from a farmers’ market is not possible, there are a few guidelines to help you when shopping for eggs in your local grocery store. We recommend that you avoid conventional white eggs and “cage-free” eggs. Look for eggs with the pasture-raised label and the Certified Humane® label, which aims to assure consumers that the farmers are following specific animal care guidelines, such as proper lighting, air, and food requirements for the hens. For example, Certified Humane® defines “pasture-raised” hens as hens that are given six hours outdoors, with 108 square feet of outdoor space per hen. Vital Farms is a good example of a company that produces pasture-raised eggs with the Certified Humane® label, which can be found in many grocery stores.
• When purchasing organic eggs, be sure to visit the egg scoreboard provided by The Cornucopia Institute: https://www.cornucopia.org/scorecard/eggs/. The scoreboard provides a wealth of knowledge about the most ethically and humanely sourced organic eggs on the market, which ones pass (or fail) as true certified organic with access to high-quality pastures/diet/living conditions, and where to find them.
• Watch our own experience at Rock Barn Ranch with pasture-raised chickens for a good example of the process one would find for producing the pasture-raised eggs found at your local farmers’ market.
Sources and References:
“True” Free Range (Pasture-Raised) Chicken Eggs with Wiseman Family Practice. Retrieved March 22, 2016 from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9tn4gvcjpy8.
The Humane Society of the United States Calls on Iowa’s Egg Industry to Phase Out Cage Confinement of Hens, Strengthen Food Safety. humanesociety.org. Retrieved March 22, 2016 from http://www.humanesociety.org/news/press_releases/2010/08/egg_recall_081910.html
Kelto, A. (2014, December 23) Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs Not Always What They’re Cracked Up to Be. npr.org. Retrieved March 22, 2016 from http://www.npr.org/sections/thesalt/2014/12/23/370377902/farm-fresh-natural-eggs-not-always-what-they-re-cracked-up-to-be
Organic Egg Scorecard. cornucopia.org. Retrieved May 14, 2023 from http://www.cornucopia.org/organic-egg-scorecard/
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on March 28, 2016 and has since been updated.
Thank you for your research about eggs. It is most informative and something I will use in my daily life. I am very impressed with the effort WFP makes to provide wellness support in every aspect.
I raise pastured hens for eggs and meat. I always tell people beware of farmer’s market eggs and ask the farmer what do you feed your hens? If they are feeding feed store layer pellets they are GMO even if they call their eggs free range. And the hens get to eat grass and bugs. Find out if their fields are sprayed with weed control chemicals. If so, all that ends up in the eggs and meat. Sad but there are so many layers to getting real food that is clean.
It’s nice to see an article with nutritional advice that also includes a nod toward ethical sourcing of what we eat. In that vein, questions do arise, however, as to what becomes of egg-laying chickens when production declines – do they live out their natural life spans, or are they killed when their output is no longer deemed profitable. Also, when eggs are allowed to hatch to produce more egg laying hens, what becomes of the male chicks? Are they killed off since they won’t lay eggs and they’re a different kind of chicken than those raised to be butchered for chicken nuggets?