I was standing in my kitchen, staring at an egg I had just cracked over the frying pan. The yolk was a deep rich color and the egg appeared smaller than the ones I buy in a store.
When it comes to eggs, there seems to be a slew of choices. A quick scan of the egg section at a supermarket will show options like “organic, free range, free-range organic, pasture raised, cage free, all natural and grade A.” What does it all mean? What is the better option to buy? Let's take a look.
GRADE A EGGS
There is a system put in place by the USDA that separates eggs into three grades: AA, A, and B. While grading the eggs, the interior and exterior quality is measured. Things like shape, thickness of the outer shell, and definition of the yolk are taken into account.
B grade eggs do not get sold in stores, but get used in products that use eggs, as well as for egg powders. Eggs that are the proper shape, thickness, and proportion get cleared for sale in stores and given a grade A stamp.
You might be tempted to reach for a product that's labeled all natural because the term seems to suggest an absence of pesticides, GMOs, and other alterations. According to USDA, the term natural only guarantees that “the food does not contain added color, artificial flavors or synthetic substances." Natural doesn't guarantee that the product has not been genetically modified, treated with pesticides or is organic, unless otherwise stated.
The USDA states that to be labeled Free Range “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” This only applies to poultry itself, of course, and not to the eggs.
At this time, there are no legal definitions of what free range eggs mean. Free range poultry has to have unrestricted access to outside, and not be kept exclusively indoors. There are no clarifications of what that outside area must look like. There are no minimum space requirements, so it could be possible that the chickens are packed in a small square of dirt. It's hardly similar to a picture of a farm with chickens running freely on farmland, which some people might understandably envision when seeing the phrase “free range.”
In order to comply with the USDA's organic requirements, organic eggs must come from chickens that were fed organic feed, not given antibiotics, allowed outside, and raised on the basis of the animal welfare standard. In some cases, overcrowding and limited space result in cannibalism.
Beak trimming, or partial removal of the beak, has been used to stop chickens from attacking each other. American Organic Standards currently allow beak trimming.
HFAC's Certified Humane® Free Range requires that the chickens have 2 sq. ft. per bird. They must be allowed outside for no less than six hours.
HFAC's Certified Humane® Pasture Raised was created to replace what “free range” was originally meant to accomplish. In this category, chickens have a lot of room to roam outside and have a little coop to go into at night.
SO WHAT'S THE BEST OPTION?
If you want to be fancy pants, you can get your hands on Certified Humane Pasture Raised Organic eggs - these are the best eggs on the market right now. If you’re more like me, you will want to go for labels that mention Organic. But your best bet for the most natural eggs - you guessed it! Call up that neighbor that has chickens, or get some for your own house. Nothing beats homegrown!