Field Notes

Coming to Terms with Eggs

What could be more basic and simple than hen eggs? In the world of factory farming, there is nothing simple or basic about the production and marketing of nature’s most perfect protein. Rather, it’s a swirl of verbal obfuscation. Which is why a glossary is so very handy.

Our list of egg-related words comes both from the great work done by Petaluma artist and activist Douglas Gayeton and his Lexicon of Sustainability project (from which we borrowed the featured image) and the guidelines set out by the sustainable food system and farmers’ market folks at San Francisco’s Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA).

But really, even with all of the complicated marketing terms that have been applied to eggs, it’s simple to find fresh healthy eggs from free healthy hens if you buy from a farmer.

When you can’t do that, we suggest you look for the words “organic” and “pasture-raised” on the grocery store product.

Here’s what to look for — and look out for! — when buying eggs.

  • Cage-free: Hens live without cages in indoor facilities and do not necessarily have access to the outdoors. The amount of space per hen varies by producer. The term “barn-roaming” more accurately describes this principle.
  • Fertile: These eggs come from hens that live with roosters. Most are cage free.
  • Free-range (free-roaming): The term simply means the hens “have been allowed access to the outside,” but for an undetermined period of time. These hens may be, but generally are not, raised outdoors. These regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time the animal must be allowed access to this space.From a sustainability perspective, indoor free range egg facilities are a far cry from pasture-based operations, but the eggs have been shown to be safer for consumers than eggs from caged hens. In fact, 16 different studies have shown that eggs from caged chickens are much more likely to be carriers of salmonella.
  • Hormone-free: The use of hormones in laying hens was banned in the 1960s, but that meaningless designation is still used.
  • Naturally Raised: Livestock which was raised without the use of growth promotants, antibiotics, under these certified animals are allowed to have parasitic medicine, but not given food with animal byproducts to eat.
  • Organic: Hens are given only certified organic vegetarian feed without pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers or antibiotics. Hens have access to the outdoors. Organic chicken operations must be certified by designated agencies.
  • Pastured: Hens are raised outdoors on pasture, usually using movable enclosures (hens also have access to a coop for shelter and egg laying). This enables hens to eat a variety of natural foods, such as different grasses, seeds and insects. Some scientific evidence indicates that, because of this diet, eggs from pasture-raised hens have less cholesterol and fat, higher omega-3 fatty acids, and higher amounts of lutein, beta-carotene, and vitamins A & E.The term “pasture-raised” is not regulated; it is up to the producer to provide eaters with a certain level of transparency around their operation and up to the eater to ask questions. The term is sometimes used by farmers who wish to distinguish themselves from the industrialized “free-range” term.
  • Vegetarian: Eggs are produced by hens whose feed is free of animal by-products. Remember: happy chickens that are pastured eat their share of worms and other yummy things that live where their beaks roam!

Try our recipe for perfectly coddled eggs and learn to make vases out of the shells!

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  1. Denise Feldman

    Thank you for this field note. I have 5 girls. They have a coop where they stay when the garden is too fragile to handle their foraging. I do section off areas in my yard with hog panels so they scratch and eat whatever suits their fancy. This article reinforces what I intuitively knew… girls gotta roam.

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