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 is 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!

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Why I should have stopped eating at Chick Fil A a long time ago

“I pray God’s mercy on our generation that has such a prideful, arrogant attitude to think that we would have the audacity to try to redefine what marriage is all about.” (Dan Cathy)

“Of course, it’s perfectly OK to have the audacity to re-engineer God’s chicken design to make them 95% breast meat, and then drop a couple of strips of bacon and cheese on top of those bad boys, cuz you can’t take everything in Leviticus like it’s the word of God.” (Jon Stewart)

But smarter people ask where it comes from

I haven’t been to CFA since the whole Cathy Kerfuffle, though I probably will not stay away forever. But I have had to ask myself WHY I suddenly stopped eating there, over of all things a man’s personal opinion, when for years eating there has resulted in my participating in or supporting many other actions which I find repulsive, such as:

  • Growing ridiculous numbers of chickens, who are at best living their lives in a crowded dark warehouse eating feed not suited to their bodies, and are at worst genetically modified to produce the type of meat I want.
  • Consuming fats which are likely poisonous to my body and processed food with dubious nutritional content. Oh, and also, meat glue.
  • Eating produce which was almost certainly picked by an immigrant laborer who was paid maybe a pittance, or maybe nothing at all, for his or her work, all the while exposed to dangerous chemicals and backbreaking labor in any sort of weather.
  • Supporting a level and type of farming that requires altering natural processes, damaging the environment, and widespread use of fertilizer, pesticides and their ilk.

Why have I not questioned any of this before?

Granted, these are problems with almost any fast food – scratch that, almost any food you eat outside your home, period. And since reading Fast Food Nation several years ago I haven’t patronized the major fast food chains on any sort of regular basis. But I make excuses for my favorite places, either by virtue of knowing they treat their staff decently (In-N-Out), or because they give my kids books instead of toys and fruit or applesauce instead of fries (Chick Fil A), or because I know they source local and somewhat cleaner meat (Freebirds, Chipotle). I don’t have an excuse for why I eat at Five Guys (someone know something good about them?) but I only go there 1-2x a year anyway.

Anyway, all this to say that there are so many good reasons not to eat at any fast food chain that none of us should be doing it regularly. Certainly not up to three times a week, as I’ve been guilty of doing in the past with CFA (it’s my kids! I blame their addiction to nuggets! And the play structures that keep them amused while I avail myself of free wi-fi!).

This week I’m going to talk about just one aspect of this post: justice. Particularly in relation to the people who tend and pick the crops we eat. And I mean the stuff we buy to cook at home, too, not just what the major restaurant chains have to demand to meet their supply quotas. So if you’re not inclined to think about or change the way you eat, you should probably skip these posts. Because I’ve learned some seriously disturbing information, and I’m about to get all lady justice up in big ag’s ass.

The Hidden Costs of Hamburgers

The Center for Investigative Reporting presents this 8 minute distillation of Michael Pollan’s chapters on meat from the seminal “Omnivore’s Dilemma”. If that tome’s page count seems daunting, or you simply prefer to ingest your information in animated form, chew on this.

The Five Minute Pitch

Last night a woman asked me about this blog and what I write about. It gave me the opportunity to practice my “five minute pitch” – that is, the distillation of the ideas you’re considering for a book that can be given in an elevator ride. Technically I realize five minutes is too long. But once I get going I tend to keep people’s interest. 🙂

Anyway I failed at being very coherent last night (granted, there was wine involved, which I felt the need to imbibe while speaking so as to underline my points about eating well), so I thought I’d better get this figured out on here and then I will hopefully have a better spiel for next time. And Tina if you read this, hope it clarifies things for you!

Many Christians want to integrate their faith into all aspects of their lives, but often don’t think about how to do that with their choices around food. Yet the way that we shop and eat is so deeply important to our ethics and our general approach to life, and absolutely can and should be a spiritual act. To make it simple, I take as my starting point the three tenets of the Slow Food Movement: food should be good, clean, and fair.

Food being “fair” means that the processes by which it is produced respect the dignity of all creation. This starts with treating the earth well: not poisoning it, tending it with patience, etc. It means allowing animals to be the creatures they were made by God to be: so pigs, for instance, will root in a forest, not be crammed into a crate. It continues up the chain to human beings: paying the farmer a price that reflects his or her work, ensuring that slave or near-slave labor does not continue, and supporting legislation that lifts up the individual, hardworking people who labor to bring us food. Respect and Fairness also means giving all created beings, including the land,
the Sabbath rest it deserves.

Food being “clean” goes right along with this. Christians can think of it as purity, as not polluting our bodies with inventions masquerading as food or poisons that may give a moment of pleasure but contribute to a lifetime of illness. It means having a clear idea of where your food has come from, and connecting to the people (and animals, if you like) who are part of the process. It means personally knowing your farmer and even visiting the farm, showing your children the beauty of the earth and its abundance. Again, it can mean supporting certain types of legislation. And the best way to ensure you’re eating clean food is by growing it yourself: a wonderful way to connect to God’s creative work in the world.

Finally, food should be GOOD! It should taste good, it should make our tongues and our tummies happy! That means we eat real food, not foodlike substances (it means we throw rules out the window now and then, too). We take time to cook and honor the recipes of our ancestors. We use premium ingredients from around the world, that remind us just how varied and exciting God’s handiwork can be.

And it should be good for you, not just in the physical sense, but in the emotional, social, and definitely spiritual senses! Pondering your apple while you eat it will settle your mental state and put you in a place of gratitude and connection with your world. Eating with other people will bring you close together and cement community. And there is a great reason why the Eucharist is the primary sacrament of Christian discipleship: it is through daily bread that we return thanks to our Creator for sustaining our lives, and it is through wine that we return thanks for the grand enjoyment we are given in life! Blessing God for the gift of food makes us priests before him, sharing and stewarding, correcting the selfish error of Adam and Eve who took for themselves alone.

Good, clean, and fair food connects us to our families, our communities, our God, and our best selves. And that is why eating well is, inherently, a spiritual act.

(ok that is probably over five minutes….like I said, I really get going. It’s a work in progress!)