Eggs: A Simple Guide

Last night at our screening of Food, Inc the question was raised about how to choose eggs wisely.

at least I'm not shopping for eggs...

Eggs…why’d it have to be eggs…?

This can be more complicated than Indiana Jones and the Hall of Holy Grails.

So when a friend this morning mentioned she wants to up her egg intake, I offered (at her request!) the following suggestions which I have gleaned from my studies of the food system.

I try to base my opinions on the hardest evidence I can find and not be especially emotional or anthropomorphic. I do subscribe to Slow Food Principles (Good, Clean & Fair) and hold a personal spiritual conviction that we are stewards of the earth and animals, responsible to them – and to our fellow humans – to carefully consider our impact.

That said, this is just from my personal observations and reading, and I haven’t done a ton of specialized research. So if I’m wrong about something, by all means please leave a comment and correct me! We are all here to learn. (But no need to comment about how “eating all eggs is evil” or something because that’s not the purpose of this post. We’re changing the food system from the inside; there’s certainly a place for those who wish to boycott as well, but I’m writing this for the “buycotters” out there.)

So…disclaimers & provisos finished with, let’s move on…

If you want to eat eggs & chicken that were raised the closest way possible to their natural God-given behaviors, here’s what they do: they want to be outside. They scratch the ground. They forage and eat bugs. They take dust baths and flap around a lot. They are social creatures with established networks (yes there is a “pecking order”).

Not your grandma's chicken coop

Not your grandma’s chicken coop

So, battery cages – standard practice in the egg industry – are really against their natural behavior. If eggs are cheap you can bet they’re from cages. Same goes for that $2.99 rotisserie cooking under the heat lamps…sorry to disappoint.

But this post is about eggs, specifically. And the language you see on egg labels is mighty confusing. Here are what a few of the standard terms mean:

What cage free looks like

What cage free looks like

Cage Free: exactly that, but nothing more. Usually means kept in a dark, hot barn, with thousands of hens (one friend called it a “sea of chickens”) crammed in together. They are not in cages but they’re running around in their filth and eating god knows what (but mostly corn). Diseases do spread. Natural behaviors are minimal. Note: Organic chickens can be raised this way. They just have to be eating organic corn/soy.

Free Range or Free Roaming: this is up for debate (and there are no standards universally anyway) but most of the time it does mean some measure of outside time. I understand it to mean a step better than Cage Free. Animal activist websites do claim that Free Range is no different, and it may not be in some (many?) cases.

Fertile: means they were exposed to a rooster, which increases the likelihood of the chickens being actually roaming. Also, boy & girl chickens together is more natural than not. It is very, very difficult if not impossible for a large farm to maintain roosters, so fertile eggs will usually be from a smaller operation (but note that the smallest backyard enthusiasts also usually can’t keep roosters because they are loud, make babies, and can be rather mean – they didn’t start cockfighting because these were cuddly creatures).

[Roosters btw are a whole other issue – male chicks at large operations are gassed to death at one day old, en masse – thousands and thousands per year. They are an unusable byproduct of the egg industry. You can’t guarantee you’re not contributing to that unless you know the farmer and know what they do with their males – most family farms will raise the males for meat, which is preferable IMO.]

unfortunate byproduct of the mass egg industry

unfortunate byproduct of the mass egg industry

Vegetarian: hens are not naturally vegetarian. I think this is used to trick ovo-vegetarians into feeling comfortable because they know the hen hasn’t been eating, say, dead animals (which isn’t very common). But actually what it means is that the hen’s diet was controlled, i.e. she ate corn and/or soy exclusively. This isn’t a natural diet for a hen, and it means she couldn’t have been freely roaming. As mentioned above, if given her choice, she would also be eating seeds, grass, and bugs. So I avoid vegetarian or vegetarian-fed eggs.

pretty eggs

Easter eggs – no dye required!

Brown: Color doesn’t matter. Egg colors just vary based on the type of chicken that laid them. Some lay beautiful pink, purple, orange, and multi-colored eggs. There is no nutritional difference between a brown or a white egg (it’s not like bread…and even then, just brown bread doesn’t mean it’s healthier…but that’s another post).

Now, obviously, if you can keep your own chickens for eggs, more power to you. As long as you commit to it and your hens don’t wind up at the Humane Society because you bit off more than you could chew (a common problem in places I’ve lived such as Berkeley, where it was fashionable to build a coop but somebody forgot to point out there was a learning curve), this is the very best way to get eggs, hands down. And if you have a friend willing to do that work and give/sell you eggs, so much the better!!

But if you can’t raise them and your friends don’t either, then here is my “pecking order” (ha ha) for how to choose eggs wisely:

ce_chickensongrass1. Farmer’s market eggs ($5-7/dozen ouch!) when I’ve talked to the provider and trust her/his methods. Note that not all FM eggs are raised right – I’ve seen eggs at the FM from caged hens or big operations, even just carted over from the supermarket. An alternative would be to seek out a CSA (be it veggie or meat) that includes eggs.

2. Fertile free range or free roaming eggs

3. Organic free range – USDA organic isĀ supposed to carry some modicum of humanity in the animal treatment. And usually anything raised in an organic manner is better for the environment. Also, supposedly organics can’t contain GMO ingredients (although I’ve just been told that non-GMO corn doesn’t exist any longer…so organic corn would be GMO…I have to check on that).

4. Organic cage free from a local store I trust is using my dollar wisely – because I will balance the benefit to my local economy and a well-paid worker, plus the fossil fuels saved by local shopping, against the welfare of the chicken, just like I will also take into account the environmental health of an organic vs. non-organic production method.

If I can’t at least meet #4 I will skip eggs until I can do better. The best part about buying an egg from a chicken that lived well? It tastes soooooooooooooooooooooo good!!!Today chickens are happy

Hope this is helpful, and please do leave a comment – whether you like it or if I’m unknowingly giving bad or wrong advice!

It’s October!

Now there’s a concept…

Time for beer and candy! Plus, my kids are freaking adorable in costumes. What a great month.

Well let me rain on your parade just a little bit. As my thoughts turn to the many, many occasions this month at which my children will be buzzed on sugar, I also think about the realities of the cheap and abundant candy that is thrown at them like so much manna raining from heaven. And those realities suck.

Because sad to say, the whole candy thing – in particular, the chocolate juggernaut – rides on the backs of, you guessed it, slaves. Or at best, sorely underpaid workers. At worst, forced child labor.

I am going to just let a couple of excellent posts from the very much more popular “Rage Against the Minivan” blog speak for me here, because why reinvent the argument?

This one features several clips from a devastating BBC documentary that will hopefully change your mind about those giant Costco bags of chockies.

This one is a helpful list of steps – starting from the most baby all the way up to the most committed & preachy – for making your Halloween more fair (also I am 90% sure that the organic lollipops I’m buying at Trader Joe’s are the very same as those listed in this post).

I hope you’ll read them, watch them, and implement their suggestions.

As for us, we’ll be doing those organic lollipops and regiving anything the kids receive. Which, if we go by last year’s haul, will be MORE than enough.

Oh and we buy our beer locally…I really hope I don’t learn there’s a whole hops slave trade going on or I just might lose it.

[another “fun” post by RATM is this satire about non-fairly traded coffee…]

Don’t take it out on the kids

So yesterday I went to Chick Fil A for the first time in a couple of months. I didn’t even realize my visit coincided with the possible end of the chain’s support of gay-hate groups, but that’s fine by me.

I wrote recently about why CFA should be a smaller part of my life, and it wasn’t about politics or religion at all – purely about health. But yesterday I was jonesing something awful for the spicy chicken. So I rationalized that going every six weeks to two months isn’t going to kill anybody, and the small amount I spend there (usually under $15) isn’t going to make a dent one way or the other in their business. I fulfilled my craving without guilt, and made my children extremely happy by finally relenting to their near-daily demand for the place.

After we ate and they were safely ensconced in the playground, I noticed that the kids had automatically been given the under-3 toy with their meals. At first, I assumed the restaurant must simply be out of anything else. But then I saw every other kid in the place had a different and cooler toy (some kind of cd…not sure if it was for listening or computer). Since my house is already littered with those little board books, I decided to go ask for the other toy.

Here’s what I was told: “You didn’t buy the right meal to get those. You only bought four nuggets. You have to buy six nuggets to get the over-3 toy.” I’m like, what? I’ve always only ordered four…because that is all my kids eat. The woman patiently responded that this was a new policy: to give an under-3 toy with a 4-count nugget, and an over-3 toy with a 6-count nugget (never mind that I bought two 4-count meals, and therefore 8 nuggets…but I didn’t think of pointing that out at the time).

This concerns me because it raises a health issue. Basically the store is taking the position either that a) only toddlers eat 4-count meals or b) an older child with a reasonable appetite should be treated like a baby.

My children often eat only three of their four nuggets, and that is because I make them first eat their fruit and pouch of applesauce, all the while drinking milk (fries, if any, are last after nuggets). When they load up on the healthier stuff first, then their little tummies are pretty much full, and the nuggets are just a protein chaser.

But CFA is penalizing this behavior, and insisting that if I want my children to receive an age-appropriate toy, they have to have what they consider an age-appropriate appetite.

Is anybody else thinking about childhood obesity? Could this maybe be such a problem because we assume that a “normal” child portion is six nuggets plus fries plus (refillable) soda?

I realize that an older child probably does need six nuggets to feel full (though she will get fuller if she eats fruit and milk on the side instead of fries and soda). But my kid is four years old. And skinny. And frankly, I have no desire to force feed her extra nuggets.

CFA has tried (successfully, in my book) to position themselves as a healthier alternative for kids, offering grilled nuggets, applesauce, fruit, milk, etc. They used to upcharge for these items but stopped that practice a few years ago, which indicated to me a positive move towards caring about kids’ health – making it easy & cost-neutral to give your child something better for him. Now I feel like their commitment is declining…worse, I feel like they are cutting costs at the expense of kids.

And I do not know one parent who doesn’t go there because their kids beg for it. So really, children are among their most important customers. They should be bending over backwards to keep kids happy!

Yes, I know it is ironic to talk about health, especially to complain about it, when it comes to fast food. That was the point of my previous post. But the fact remains, sometimes your kids will want it, sometimes you need a fast and cheap lunch. That’s just a reality of parenting. And I’d rather go there than other places where I really don’t trust the food at all (and have bigger problems with their labor practices than I do with CFA’s charity practices). Finally, I appreciate the fact that at CFA I have several healthier options to choose from.

I just wish my kids wouldn’t be punished for making a choice that is better for their bodies.

[UPDATE: I’ve recently learned this might only be a local policy – if you find that this is not the policy at your CFA, would you mind posting a comment to let me know? Thanks!]
[SECOND UPDATE: OK Now I have been officially shamed by Food Babe and will probably give up CFA for good. Dammit.]

Panera Bread explores Non-Profit Approach

God bless them! Panera is already one of my favorite places to eat, and now I love them even more.

NPR: Panera Explores “Pay What You Want” Concept

I think this will actually pay off in customer appreciation and, possibly, higher proceeds (if the woman interviewed who pays more than the usual price is any indication).

The American Way of Eating: My Favorite Quotes

Let me be perfectly honest up front and say I’m about to quote liberally from Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating. I quote her for two reasons: first, to show you her excellent writing so that you’ll hopefully go read the book; and second, because I absolutely just LOVE the points she is making here (note that I put her italicized words in all caps since wordpress italicizes everything in a box quote).

Box meals don’t save us time any more than going out to eat does, and they don’t even save us money. What they do instead is remove the need to have to come up with a plan for dinner, something that’s easy when you’re a skilled cook–and bafflingly difficult when you’re not. The real convenience behind these convenience foods isn’t time or money, but that they remove one more bit of stress from our day….

The key to getting people to eat better isn’t that they should spend more money, or even that they should spend more time. It’s making the actual cooking of a meal into an EASY choice, the obvious answer. And that only happens when people are as comfortable and confident in the kitchen as they are taking care of the other endless chores that come with running a modern family–paying bills, cleaning house, washing the car. It only happens, in other words, when we can cook well. It doesn’t take advanced culinary acumen to know that making a pasta-and-ground beef one-skillet dinner from scratch isn’t actually any more difficult than using a box, but it does take education and training. Enough, at least, to convey that grilling a steak and steaming vegetables is just a basic household task….

There will be days for every person, every family, where it IS worth paying four times more for the service. That’s fine. But the longer I’m at Applebee’s, the more I think everyone should be making that choice from equal footing: with easy access to fresh ingredients, and a solid ability to cook. (pp. 212-213)

 

…the healthiest route through the American foodscape is a steep and arduous path most easily ascended by joining its top income bracket. So far as I can tell, changing what’s on our plates simply isn’t feasible without changing far more. Wages, health care, work hours, and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the places at which we shop. (231)

 

It’s worthwhile, of course, to talk about food as a meal or as the product of a farm, but to engage with our meals solely on those terms is to ignore food’s core essence. Food is not a luxury lifestyle product. It is a social good.

 

AMEN sister!!