Unscrambling Egg Labels: From $1.50 to $15 a Dozen, Caged to Pastured, What Do The Distinctions Mean?

Unscrambling Egg Labels: From .50 to  a Dozen, Caged to Pastured, What Do The Distinctions Mean?

Egg prices at Hannaford this week range from $1.50 for a large white dozen to $8.99 for a dozen of Vital-brand pasture-raised eggs (photo by Emily Sachar).

An egg is an egg is an egg. Right? Not eggs-actly. As prices in local dairy aisles and farm markets make clear, egg prices can range from $1.50 for a standard white dozen of large eggs at Hannaford’s to $15 for a carton of Annie Dye’s pasture-raised eggs. Why the wild deviations? The Daily Catch got cracking to untangle the labels and the prices. Here is what we learned.

In the United States, marketing labels for eggs are regulated to some degree by the federal government, but many of the terms used can be confusing, and this is sometimes deliberate. Also of note, the color of a chicken’s egg is set by the chicken’s breed or variety and does not reflect what the chicken eats or how it is raised. All egg prices below are per dozen for large eggs at Hannaford’s Red Hook supermarket, as recorded on Saturday, July 29.

Caged Eggs: Ninety percent of eggs sold in the United States come from caged hens. The hens that lay caged eggs never go outside. They live in a one-square-foot space swarmed by thousands of other chickens. The cages are stacked on top of each other, forming columns that can be upwards of eight cages high, resembling an artillery battery. These animals typically have a productive egg-laying life of 1.5 years, after which they are killed for animal feed. Caged hens are predominantly fed a diet of GMO (genetically modified organism) corn and soy. The goal of raising hens this way is to churn out as many eggs as possible, as cheaply as possible, for a quick profit, according to Hudson Valley chef and blogger Nicholas Leiss.

White caged eggs, $1.50

Cage-Free Eggs: Cage-free chickens are not housed in cages, but they are still warehoused. The size of the space where they are free to maneuver can vary but is typically very crowded. The USDA states that eggs labeled as cage- free “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” But, generally, cage-free farms are windowless and provide artificial rather than natural light. “The term ‘cage-free eggs’ is strictly a marketing ploy to make us feel warm and fuzzy inside,” said Leiss. “Cage-free hens live similarly to caged hens, sans the cage.”

Cage-free Eggs, $3.49-$4.29

Free-Run Eggs: Chickens are theoretically free to roam around an entire barn floor but not necessarily to be outdoors foraging. Some of these barns may have multi-tiered aviaries. As a result of still being in crowded conditions, these eggs are generally cheaper than free-range eggs. Hannaford’s sells a free-run egg that also is enriched with omega-3 oils. These chickens have a diet enriched with flax seeds. The flaxseed contains a type of omega-3 fatty acid called a linolenic acid and the hen will deposit a significant amount of this dietary fatty acid into the egg yolk, according to agriculture experts at getwellbe.com.

Free-Run Eggs, $4.69-$4.99

Free-Range Eggs: Chickens are theoretically free to roam outdoors, but the conditions may still be too crowded to maneuver. Poultry companies use this label if the chickens had theoretical access to the outdoors each day, with no requirements on how long. There is no guarantee that the animal goes outdoors. “Chickens love to huddle together for body heat, and corporate farmers never really encourage them to leave the comfort of the barn,” Leiss said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates the term “free-range” only for poultry chickens, not for laying chickens.

Free-Range Eggs, $5.29-$5.49

Organic Eggs: “Organic” chickens are fed an organic diet – no antibiotics unless the chickens are sick – and the chickens must live in a cage-free and free-range environment. But organic may mean vegetarian, and that is not ideal for chickens, who should also eat worms and flies, according to Leiss. A lack of clarity allows producers to exploit the system, letting consumers believe animals have a higher quality of life as part of the increased cost of products. The USDA’s Organic Program ostensibly requires producers to keep animals in living conditions that “accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals.” This includes clean water for drinking, and direct sunlight, suitable to the species, its stage of life, the climate, and the environment. However, according to the USDA, animals may be temporarily denied access to the outdoors…” Some producers have used this loophole to keep hens indoors most or all of the time in overcrowded barns, according to the Animal Legal Defense Fund. “ ‘Organic eggs’ is also a misleading marketing term,” says chef Leiss. “Chickens are naturally designed to eat bugs, grass, and worms, not vegetarian feed and grains.”

Organic Eggs, $5.49-$6.49

Pasture-Raised Eggs: Animals spend at least some time outdoors on pasture, feeding on grass or forage. Such hens are able to sleep, flock, clean and mate in chicken coops. “From early morning to late night, they’re outside foraging for bugs, worms, and grass, as nature intended. This leads to healthier and more delicious eggs,” says Leiss. It also makes the eggs much more expensive. Such hens sometimes live out their lives at home when they are no longer productive. And because they still need to be fed, they are a financial drain on the rest of the farm operation, hence the added price at which such eggs must be sold to generate a profit. Pasture-raised hens generally produce eggs for no more than three years but may live to be 7.

Pasture-Raised Eggs: $6.99-$8.99

The post Unscrambling Egg Labels: From $1.50 to $15 a Dozen, Caged to Pastured, What Do The Distinctions Mean? first appeared on The Daily Catch.