Story & photos by Montana Jones—originally published in Edible Toronto magazine.
What could be simpler than the ubiquitous egg? Whether boiled, scrambled, poached or fried, we dearly love our delicate dozen ovals. Some will venture into duck, goose, quail, pheasant, emu, ostrich and even turkey territory, but the domestic chicken egg wins feathers down in popularity.
We’ve been eating eggs since the first rooster crowed at the dawn of time. In 2009, with a worldwide laying flock of approximately 6.4 billion hens, global production was estimated at some 62 million metric tons of eggs. That’s a fair bit of cracking.
But the simple facts beneath the shell aren’t all sunny-side up, let alone straight up. If you’re confused by the many different terms on egg cartons, you are not alone.
The “cage-free” label helps consumers feel better, but the chicken that laid them may not be so chirpy. “Free-range” doesn’t necessarily denote hens that saw the light of day, and “organic” may not mean your breakfast was born free at all.
In the quest for the best, healthiest food, consumers must do their homework. Buying food locally is not always a guarantee. Confinement agriculture and non-therapeutic use of antibiotics might still play a part in production, so it’s key to ensure the eggs you buy are indeed from farmers whose methods you support. The bottom line is, the bawk stops with you, the consumer. To find a trusted source, educate yourself on the differences, and ask lots of questions.
One can’t really expect the insipid pale yellow centre and limp rubbery white of a cheerless supermarket egg to rise to any occasion in your mouth. Think where it’s been. That aftertaste is the sad resentment of a feathered prisoner. Now go and find a real egg – a good egg – laid by a real hen living the good life, which for a chicken just means scratching in a pasture, eating lots of bugs, having dust baths in the sun, and clucking about with the flock. That bird’s gift to you will taste of freedom and contentment. The egg of your dreams is gentle, easy and creamy when scrambled. It’s buttery smooth, light on your tongue, and has the surprising flavour of presence.
I’m often asked why my fresh farm eggs taste of bright morning bliss while the free-range, certified-organic eggs purchased at the supermarket do not. Surely such labels mean they are prime choice? Maybe. Maybe not.
Cage-laid or non-labelled eggs:
The majority of eggs available fall under this classification. A carton will rarely state the sad fact, but odds are that no label of origin means that the eggs come from the 95 percent of laying hens that live in cramped quarters, unable to flap their wings, turn around, or forage for food. Baby chicks destined for the production line are debeaked to discourage the birds from injuring their co-habitants when they’re grown up, and are crowded five or six at a time into the wire world where they will spend their entire lives. (Ironically, it’s these very conditions that make the stressed hens peck at each other in the first place.)
This horrid practice involves pressing the chicks’ faces up to a hot blade that sears off the tip and the top half of their tender beaks. Some die after the procedure. The mutilation leaves most birds with exposed mouths and tongues, but the challenge of eating with a deformed mouth is offset by a pelleted ration that’s constantly within reach. Many egg producers claim that keeping birds confined indoors, out of daylight, never setting foot on ground or grass, and “safe” from disease, is in the chickens’ best interests. These eggs taste like the vacant regret of a poor choice.
Consumers are starting to see the not-so-pretty facts behind much of our mass corporate food production, which may be why the Eggs Farmers of Ontario recently produced their warm and fuzzy “Pride in Every Egg” commercial. In it, viewers hear a happy banjo-pluckin’ ditty about hard workin’ proud farmers while the morning sun shines on a smiling family, green fields and rambling rural scenes. They don’t show the harsh reality of actual chickens in actual egg barns, and some critics feel the advertisement is deliberate, misleading greenwashing in response to the growing trend to buying locally sourced, naturally raised food directly from small farmers.
Layers of these eggs are restricted to feed that is certified free of chemical fertilizers, fungicides, herbicides, pesticides, GMOs, and animal by-products. No antibiotics or synthetic chemicals are administered. Certified-organic eggs may or may not necessarily come from truly pastured chickens, but the hens will always be cage-free and free range. Organic Products Regulations (which came into effect in Canada in 2009) and Standards Council of Canada certification requirements stipulate that hens must have access to open air pens and “pasture,” however the permissible stocking density allows up to 800 hens per acre. The birds have the opportunity for exposure to a more natural environment, fresh air and exercise, but some might never step outdoors due to volume. And the exposure might not affect the flavour factor, since the sheer numbers of diners vs. bugs could prevent the hens from as varied an insect and grass diet as a pastured chickens on a small-scale organic farm might have.
This label means that the hen was not given antibiotics. Newly hatched chicks are routinely given continuous antibiotics despite the absence of illness. Even small farmers intent on raising their birds “naturally” may inadvertently give their healthy chicks Amprolium-laced feed if they’re not careful to specify “non-medicated” from their feed store. So be certain your producer uses none from day one.
The hormone-free label is little more than a marketing tactic, since hormone use in poultry production was banned in Canada in the 1960s.
Hens that are fed a ration containing 10 to 20 percent flaxseed meal will produce eggs with higher polyunsaturated fat and Omega-3 fatty acid levels than other eggs. Some people’s palates detect a fishy aroma and flavour.
At one time, “free range” described small farm flocks allowed to wander freely through meadows in search of seeds and bugs. The definition dramatically changed when the term was hijacked by the commercial egg industry. “Free-range” and “free-run” are the two most commonly misconstrued labels since they imply the hens are running about on grass, but it’s not such a picnic. Free-range birds must, by definition, have access to the outdoors, though what that means can greatly vary since there is no legal definition of the term. Canada does not regulate criteria such as environmental quality, size of the outdoor area, number of birds, or space per bird. Typically, free-range hens are still subjected to debeaking, have only 1 to 2 square feet of floor space per bird, and may or may not have access to nests or perches. Taste is the same as free-run and cage-laid eggs.
Free-run or Cage-free eggs:
“Free run” may sound like good poultry fun, but it’s still not a natural life. Birds cannot go outdoors, but are able to move around within the building, socialize, dust-bathe, and may or may not be provided with perches. They are still generally debeaked and live in crowded conditions with artificial light. Canada does not regulate this production method, either, but it is a kinder choice than caged, although no better in flavour.
This good egg is the best. Whether raised for meat or eggs, pastured chickens require more time and money since birds burn calories wandering; but in that time they are growing their flavour, which is unmatched. More small-scale farmers are utilizing moveable pens (or “chicken tractors”), which means the hens enjoy a fresh patch of ground to scratch in every day. This method protects the birds from predators, and a mobile shelter makes it easy to collect their daily oval offerings. Pastured hens should not be debeaked.
If you’ve always eaten factory-farmed eggs from grain-fed hens, you might not realize that a real egg is not supposed to sport a pale yellow yolk. The grass eaten by pastured poultry contains chlorophyll which, along with the hens’ heavy ingestion of insects and grubs, produces orange egg yolks and incredible flavour. Be sure the pastured eggs you buy are not from hens raised on bare ground that has long since been scratched away to dirt, because the desired flavour and colour will be missing. In winter I offer my girls second-cut alfalfa hay and wheat or other sprouted grass so they keep laying those golden eggs.
According to a study published in 2010 in The Cambridge Journals, the eggs from pastured hens contain about two-and-a-half times more total omega-3 fatty acids and vitamin E than those of their less fortunate factory cousins. They also have 38 percent higher concentrations of vitamin A. A 2007 Mother Earth News study reports that pastured hens contain 25 percent less saturated fat, 34 percent less cholesterol, 65 percent more vitamin A, up to three times the amount of vitamin E, and seven times more beta carotene than non-pastured eggs. Need I say more?
To find a good egg requires dedication and research. Your best bet for sourcing pastured organic eggs is to buy them directly from a farm where you can see how the flock is raised. The next option might be a farmers’ market, but most of the eggs sold there are not the elusive treasures you seek. Farmers are not legally allowed to sell their eggs from anywhere but the farm gate unless the eggs have been graded for quality; an unrealistic situation for most small-scale farmers given that grading stations are few and far between.
Theoretically, if eggs are labelled “Not for human consumption,” one could score some at a farmers’ market with a secret password whispered to a furtive farmer in a trench coat. Until regulations are changed, however, if that farmer who works so hard to raise the best possible food for you dares to offer ungraded fresh eggs for sale in a public place, he or she can be arrested and charged.
This being said, there are a few small producers of local, organically grown pastured eggs who do have on-farm grading facilities Their “small flock” eggs are available at select farmers’ markets and from independent grocery stores. Just remember to do your research and ask lots of questions about the hens’ feed and whether they have total access to fresh pasture.
As more consumers demand a better standard for their food choices, more retail stores and restaurants will refuse to carry products from animals raised in confinement with unnecessary medication. Producers will be required to evolve, and will adopt more natural livestock management systems in healthier environments, which also produces tastier food.
Deciphering cartons in the egg aisle wouldn’t be an issue at all if country and urban dwellers alike could all raise a few backyard chickens for their own eggs. Until this becomes legal, your best eggs will be from hens naturally pastured outdoors under blue skies, on grass and bugs, and supplemented with organic or unsprayed grains.
Once you’ve tried that sunny burst of fresh flavour from a pastured egg, breakfast is doubly rewarding. Choosing a pastured egg doesn’t just offer you that taste of fresh air and sunshine. It’s a guarantee that a happy hen enjoyed some, too,
Commercial eggs may have been stored for weeks before they reach your plate. To test for freshness, immerse an uncooked egg in water in a glass bowl. A fresh egg will lie flat on its side because the air sac inside is still so small. The older the egg, the more air enters the porous shell and the air sac expands, which makes the egg tilt upwards, or stand up, if it’s quite old. And if it floats? Run, don’t walk. It’s rotten. When you break it open, an older egg will spread its runny, raw clear albumen (egg white) flat over a plate. With a good egg, both the yolk and the white sit up high and firm.
Montana Jones with her dark Brahma rooster