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On Buying Eggs

Buying healthy, ethically produced eggs can be tricky business.  During some of my earlier research on food production I read a description of industrial chicken laying facilities as being “the greatest torture houses of pain that humanity has ever created.”  I have never personally visited one of these facilities, and quite frankly, I don’t care to.  I’ve read enough, and seen enough photos and videos, to not take this description as hyperbole.  

This summer, I visited a small organic farm that had ‘rescue chickens,’ acquired from one such industrial factory that gives away its hens when their laying rate declines.  Having spent their first year crammed eight to a cage so small they can’t move, these chickens arrived at the farm without feathers and without enough strength to stand, their feet having never touched the ground before.  I visited these chickens about 6 months after being rescued, and they seemed very happy in their new digs – a fenced grassy area around a nice big hen-house.  Fresh air, exercise space and good food was making a world of difference.  Most had grown feathers and all could run around and flap their wings.  Yet some of the eggs I purchased still had the pale yolk and thin shell of commercial production.  Obviously it is going to take those chickens more than six months to become even moderately healthy.

Until this summer, I purchased my eggs from the grocery store, lulled into complacency by the terms “organic”, “free range”, “free run” or “vegetarian fed.”  Corporations are masters of marketing and manipulation, and prior to doing some research, reading the egg cartons filled my head with images of happy, healthy chickens, scratching about a barnyard.  

I know better now.  Terms like “free range,” “free run” and “organic” are so amorphous that I don’t trust buying eggs unless I actually see the conditions in which the chickens live with my own two eyes, or really trust the farmer I am buying from.  “Free run,” for example, means only that the chickens are not kept in cages but can still live crammed into buildings, 20,000 at a time.  The label “free range” only guarantees that the chickens have ACCESS to the outdoors for a few minutes every day.  “Vegetarian” only promises us that there are no ground up dead chickens (or other animals) in their feed, while “organic” only certifies that they have not been drugged, and their feed is organic grain.  They could still be kept in cages, although without antibiotics and stimulating hormones, healthier conditions are necessary.  So I suppose this is a step in the right direction.

However, not one of these labels guarantees that the image of a barnyard fully of happily pecking chickens is anywhere close to the reality our egg layers experience.  Chickens are creatures of habit, for example, and once in the pattern of staying indoors, rarely will venture out regardless of doors being opened at the far end of the building once a day.  They are also not vegetarian, but omnivores.  Chickens should be given full-time access to the outdoors during daytime, so that they can feed on insects as well as grain and seeds. 

Healthy chickens produce healthy eggs, which have deep yellow yolks and hard shells.  I’ve had two cartons of the eggs I buy fly the length of my pick-up truck after a hard stop, without a single one breaking.   While these may be hard to come by in the grocery store, they are readily available at markets and at farms.  Prior to starting this project, I never noticed signs for “fresh eggs” as I drove around the country side.  Now – much to my relief and delight – I notice them everywhere.  

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