Henhouse health cause for egg labels

Posted: Friday, April 06, 2007

In the week before Easter, more eggs are sold than at any other time of year. While eggs have been called the "perfect food," there is a tremendous disparity in how the chickens that laid them are raised. Does this matter to people? You bet. For proof, you need look no farther than Burger King's announcement last week that they will begin sourcing eggs from "cage free" chickens.

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A century ago, there was no need for any kind of special label for eggs. They all came from small farms where chickens could scratch in the barnyard and build a nest in the chicken coop. Today, this idyllic life is the exception rather than the norm. Most egg laying chickens are raised in huge industrial henhouses. They are packed into stacked "battery" cages, usually six chickens to a cage. The average chicken gets 67 square inches of floor space, less than a quarter of the size of this page. Nesting, or even walking around, are out of the question.

Growing consumer concern about this situation has resulted in reforms, some genuine and some cosmetic, and an attendant proliferation of labels on egg cartons. Here are some common egg labels, and what they actually mean:

United Egg Producers Certified: This voluntary program cooked up by the egg producers doesn't mean much, because it includes chickens raised in battery cages with barely enough room to turn around.

Cage Free: This is the most common label you will see on "alternative" eggs. According to Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society, "The quality of life of a cage-free hen is so much better than the quality of life of a battery-cage hen." Cage free animals have enough room for natural behaviors such as nesting and walking around. Still, it's not exactly Old McDonald's farm. Cage free animals do not necessarily have access to the outdoors, and there is no standard with regard to what they eat.

Free Range: Generally what this means is that animals have outdoor "access." The quality of their outdoor environment, and whether the chickens actually take advantage of it varies widely from producer to producer.

Natural: This doesn't mean anything, because the U.S. Department of Agriculture considers all eggs natural.

Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning that they most likely were not caged.

Vegetarian-fed: These birds eat a more natural feed without animal products, but this label says nothing else about their living conditions.

Certified Organic: This is a label that actually means something because USDA has legal standards for organic which require third party verification. These birds are un-caged inside barns or warehouses and are required to have outdoor access. They are fed on an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides.

My experience is that certified organic eggs are consistently of superior quality to "cage-free" or "free-range." They taste better and have much thicker shells. They will also tend to cost quite a bit more. "Cage free" or "Free Range" eggs vary in quality, depending on the producer.

If you are looking for good eggs but don't think you can afford organic, your best bet is finding out as much as you can about the producer. Many of them have web sites with pictures and descriptions of their farms. These will often give you a good feel for how conscientious they are about the welfare of their birds.

Whatever eggs you choose, this week's recipe will help you use some of the hard boiled eggs the Easter bunny brings.

Wasabi Egg Salad

Wasabi is the nose tickling Japanese horseradish often served with sushi, and recently someone had the bright idea of mixing it with mayonnaise. Use it to make an egg salad with bite to it.

4 hard boiled eggs, chopped

¼ cup Wasabi Mayonnaise

1 teaspoon minced onion

Mix eggs, onion and mayo. Serve on sandwiches, toast or crackers.

• David Ottoson owns Rainbow Foods and has bought, sold and written about food and health for 20 years.

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