Eggs. We all love them. Well, most of us anyway.
Today I want to talk about hens and the difference in regulations and treatment in the rest of the world versus the US.
There are two factors to take into consideration when purchasing eggs:
- Organic or non-organic
- The living conditions of the hens laying the eggs (caged, cage-free, free range, pasteurized)
Organic versus non-organic
First, let’s talk about organic versus non-organic because I have found some people do not understand what “organic” means. We have big marketing firms to thank for the confusion because they have taken a word, organic, and given it an entirely different meaning than how it is defined in the dictionary.
Food that is labeled as “organic” means that it is a product of a farm that does not use man-made fertilizers, pesticides, additives, GMOs, hormones, and any other chemicals. In short, organic/non-organic is a food classification (including the soil) and is unrelated to the living conditions of animals.
As an example, a prisoner living in a small cell eating organic food does not have a better quality of life than a person living free and eating non-organic food. The same is applied to animals, specifically hens and other poultry because, in the US, these animals are most often caged.
Organic does not necessarily mean better. For example, eating an unwashed organic peach found in the street gutter/gully is not better than eating a washed non-organic peach straight from the orchard.
When buying eggs, the organic/non-organic factor is secondary to the living conditions factor, so, let’s talk about the living conditions of hens.
There are four living condition categories, listed from worst to best:
- Caged (also known as “conventional” and “battery caged”)
- Free range
- Pasteurized (also known as “free range on pasture”)
Below is a photo of the inside of a Happy Egg Co. carton. It is a helpful illustration in understanding the four living condition categories.
Note: In the state of California, free-range hens are by definition organic which is why the carton description has commingled the two in the third drawing, however, this is not true for all states.
Caged hens are hens (5-10) that are smashed into a single cage (the size of an average microwave) and the cages are stacked on top of one another from floor to ceiling. If we were to compare these living conditions to adult humans, it is the same as nine adults living in an elevator.
Caged hens cannot walk, span their wings or exercise. They cannot all stand up at the same time because of a lack of room. Most are deformed or have legs that never develop. They never see the light of day. They defecate on each other (more on that later). There is no such thing as a humanely raised caged hen and you should cease supporting any business which sells caged hens and/or the eggs of caged hens.
Ninety percent (90%!) of the eggs in the US are laid by caged hens. A large barn can “house” 250,000-500,000 hens. Regular “conventional” eggs are from caged/battery caged hens. Typically all eggs sold in styrofoam containers in the US are from caged hens. In Europe, if the eggs are from caged hens, then the packaging must clearly state this – not true in the US.
Cage-free is not what the average American consumer believes it is. The average consumer believes cage-free is actually “free-range” which are hens that are able to exit the barn and exercise on grass. In reality, cage-free and free-range are different.
While it is true that cage-free is an improvement over caged, the conditions are still deplorable. Cage-free hens are still confined to high density barns and most of the barns are tiered like a hen prison. They still poop and pee on each other. They can barely move and they never see daylight.
Free-range living sounds great, doesn’t it? Sort of “Home on the Range-y”?
Well, it’s not. Free-range hens spend their time primarily inside high-density barns, however, they can enter and exit the barn as they please. Generally speaking, their space outside is limited but I suppose it’s an upside that they get to walk, span their wings, see daylight, and not have the displeasure of wee dripping on their features for a few minutes during the day. Different states in the US have different requirements to be labeled free-range so that adds to the confusion of understanding eggs as well.
Pasteurized hens are the best hens to buy anywhere in the world. Pasteurized means the hens go out and forage for their own food (organic or non-organic); they are not fed grain or any sort of feed. They are truly free to roam. They enjoy the sunshine and run willingly to shelter when it starts to rain because no person or animal likes the rain. They lay their eggs in a nest. Pasteurized hens are happy!
This photo is an example of pasteurized hen living conditions – it’s probably the life you believed free-range hens lived until you read this post.
Though pasteurized hens have the best living conditions, living conditions for pasteurized hens in the UK and US still vary greatly. The state of California passed a law in 2008 (and further expanded it in 2010) requiring hens to have adequate space to stretch and, you know, be a living animal. Hens all over the state shook their features with excitement until they heard that farmers had until 2015 to comply with the new requirements. As it stands today, if the hen does not meet these requirements, then that hen’s eggs cannot be sold in the state of California.
Some of you may recall the outcry with the announcement in 2008 (among other things in that dreaded year) regarding egg prices and how this law would make prices skyrocket (it has cost consumers nationwide $350 million annually). At the time, 12 states banded together and asked the Supreme Court to block this law. Not much happened since then until a few weeks ago when Missouri’s attorney general came forward and said that he planned to put forth a lawsuit along with 11 other states.
Curious if you live in one of the states bringing forth the lawsuit, then here you go. Just for fun, the D/R designations following the state represents the political party of the attorneys general.
- Alabama (R)
- Arkansas (R)
- Indiana (R)
- Iowa (D)
- Louisiana (R)
- Missouri (R)
- Nebraska (R)
- Nevada (R)
- North Dakota (R)
- Oklahoma (R)
- Utah (R)
- Wisconsin (R)
Hens really do defecate on other hens and eggs in caged, cage-free, and free-range hen living conditions. Because of this, eggs must be sanitized and during the sanitation process, the natural protective coating on the eggs (which prevents bacteria from penetrating the shell) is removed. In order to prevent bacteria from penetrating the shell, eggs must be refrigerated (exception: eggs purchased directly from a farmer who confirms it is OK to keep the eggs at ambient temperature).
In the UK, Europe, and many other countries I have visited, hens do not have the same dire living conditions, therefore, defecation on hens and eggs is not a factor, therefore, sanitation is not needed, therefore, eggs do not need to be refrigerated.
Note: As two general rules, eggs at ambient temperature are good for about three weeks and once an egg is refrigerated, it must continue to be refrigerated until cooked.
Finally, a few notes on the color of egg shells and yolks.
The color of an egg’s shell is determined by the breed and genetics of the hen. I prefer brown eggs because the eggs in the UK and abroad are brown and they were better quality eggs than what I had consumed in the US before moving abroad so to me personally, brown shell eggs equals better quality. That said, if there were two eggs to choose between with the first being a brown caged egg and the second being a white pasteurized egg, I’d choose the latter without hesitation.
The color of an egg’s yolk is based on the amount of carotene the hen has consumed. The more carotene, the more orange the yolk. The yolk of eggs in the UK and Europe are almost always orange, more orange than this Happy Egg Co egg in the photo below.
As with my statement above about brown shells, I associate the color of an egg’s yolk to the quality of the egg, even though there is no proof that this is true. So for me personally, the more orange the yolk, the better the quality of the egg.
That’s all for now on eggs. PSA: Buy eggs that come from hens who are able to freely live their life doing hen things!
For the next learning in my Expat Learnings mini series, go here. Alternatively, go here to read this mini-series from the beginning.
If you really want to know about Eggs in the USA, you need to experience Susan’s eggs from her chickens and talk to her kids about raising chickens in the backyard. They are very experienced and knowledgeable firsthand. Also, experience her honey from her bee hives.