Let’s hear it for the egg! Versatile, economical, delicious, and nutritious, the egg is a staple of the modern diet. According to the American Egg Board, the United States produces about 6 billion eggs per year.
That’s about 250 eggs consumed per person, per year.
Many people, when envisioning where their eggs come from, probably imagine a scene like this:
But is this realistic? Where do those 6 billion eggs per year come from?
Do they really come from hens that wander in a field like this?
More specifically, how do we get from here:
Before we get into that, let’s spend a moment talking about a hen’s diet. Looking at the cartons of premium eggs in the grocery store with their pronouncements of “100% vegetarian fed hens” you would think that hens are vegetarians.
You’d be wrong.
Hens are not vegetarians, they’re omnivores. A hen’s typical diet includes grass, legumes, forbs, seeds, and insects. (I’m not a plant person. I had to look it up. A “forb” is an herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid (grasses, sedges and rushes). Some examples of forbs are clover, sunflower, and milkweed.)
As one friend of mine says about packages that state 100% vegetarian, free roaming hens, “either you’re lying or you ain’t watching.”
Instead of an omnivorous diet, however, factory farmed hens are fed primarily grains, typically soy-based grains because it’s cheaper. A typical factory hen’s diet can also include recycled plastics (for roughage), manure and other animal waste, feathers, rendered road kill, and even, under US law, euthanized cats and dogs (labeled as “animal protein products”). In addition, because hens raised in captivity are more stressed and disease-ridden, their diets include an extreme abundance of antibiotics, antimicrobials, and antifungals. One of the reasons for such medication is that factory chickens are trapped in wire cages with no more room than a single sheet of paper and as the tissues of their feet break down from the wire cages, the wounds become contaminated with their own waste, and the waste dripping down from the cages above.
Yummy. That certainly sounds like an environment from which I want to get my eggs.
But we don’t have to worry about this if we buy organic, free-range or cage-free eggs, right?
Uh, wrong again.
You see, the federal requirements for using the term “organic” have been weakened so thoroughly (thanks to the lobbying efforts of the massive factory farming companies) that the requirement that organic hens be free-range is virtually worthless.
Let’s take a look at an organic factory farm that meets the “access to outdoors” requirements:
And an aerial image of another organic egg producer, also meeting the requirements for outdoor access:
So how many of our eggs come from huge, factory egg producers? The American Egg Board reports that about 98% of the eggs produced in the US are produced by the 179 companies that have more than 75,000 hens each.
That means that 98% of the eggs in this country are produced by large, factory egg producers. My gut tells me that a factory egg producer with more than 75,000 hens look like the photos I’ve seen and not like this:
So, what’s a person who doesn’t want to buy mass produced eggs, produced by hens who are trapped in cages with feces dripping into their open wounds? Simple. Buy them directly from the egg farmer who raises them. One supplier in my area, Good Earth Organic Farms, raises hens the proper way. Unlike a giant factory egg farm that would likely want you arrested as a terrorist if you take a picture showing animal abuses at their facility, Good Earth Organic Farms invites visitors to come see their farm. Their hens roam the pasture, eating a natural diet. And because the hens live a healthy lifestyle, they don’t need antibiotics, antifungals, and other interventionists means just to keep them alive. As a consequence, they don’t produce eggs that need to be feared in their raw state.
In short, they produce FOOD.
Here’s a picture of Good Earth Organic Farm’s hens, heading for the mobile hen house. This hen house moves from location to location so that the hens are grazing in fresh pasture all the time.
The good folks from Good Earth Organic Farms gather their eggs by hand, load them into a truck, and drive them to the farmer’s market, where I happily buy eggs that look like this:
Instead of eggs that look like this:
Some people who attend a farmer’s market for the first time and see a dozen eggs costing $5.00 protest that $5.00 is really expensive for a dozen eggs.
No, that’s not expensive. That’s what a dozen eggs costs. That’s what it costs for a farmer to provide grazing land to healthy hens, supplement their diets with organic feed, move an eggmobile from pasture to pasture, and pay someone to hand gather eggs. Eggs that are produced at a slower, more natural rate than hens that have had their laying cycle manipulated by hormonal and environmental means.
The price you’re seeing in the grocery store is not the price of a dozen eggs. It’s the price of egg-like products after a mass producer purchases government subsidized corn, grain, and soy products and then uses them to feed substandard food to unhealthfully confined hens. The “eggs” that result must be treated like hazardous materials when they’re raw due to dramatically increased risk of salmonella from hens that have open sores and stand in their own feces all day, while other hens rain feces down upon them.
Saying you won’t buy $5.00 eggs from the farmer because you can get $1.50 eggs from the grocery store (or even $3.50 “organic” eggs from the grocery store) is like saying you won’t buy steak for $5.00 a pound because you can get beef tripe much cheaper.
It ain’t the same food at all.
If you’re still not convinced that it’s worth the difference in price, try a dozen eggs from a real egg farmer and see the difference in taste and quality. Once you’ve done that, you’ll have no problem spending an extra couple of dollars a few times a month for better eggs.
Even if the thought of a feces-laden, sore-ridden hen trapped in a cage the size of a toaster oven isn’t enough to convince you that there are better eggs out there, the taste, consistency, and reduced risk of salmonella will.