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Investigating eggs: Defining our suppliers’ products PDF Print E-mail

By Alicia Oldfield

This article is part of the Co-op’s ongoing series about the suppliers who provide the meat, poultry and eggs that we sell. In the last articles, we researched the meaning and definition for the term “free range” used by the companies that supply our broiler chicken products and the term “range grown” as used by Diestel Turkey Ranch. This article will explore the various terms used by our egg suppliers to define their products.

SNFC gets its eggs from seven different suppliers, each with a unique label and description of its product. In researching the terms on the labels, I found that they address two main topics: what the hens are fed and how they are raised. The following definitions summarize terms used in the egg industry while the chart below provides an overview of each company’s practices.


Certified Organic
The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Debeaking and forced molting are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free-range” for some poultry products, there are no standards in “free-range” egg production. Typically, free range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging.

Cage free
Hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Debeaking and forced molting are permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
Vegetarian hens
These birds are provided a more natural feed than that received by most laying hens, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.

Currently there is no legal definition of “natural” as it relates to food products. According to the USDA, foods that contains no artificial ingredients or added color and are no more that minimally processed may be considered “natural.”

Eggs carrying this label have a higher content of omega-3 fatty acids than other eggs. Gold Circle Farms, the company supplying the Co-op’s omega enriched eggs, accomplishes the increased level of omega-3s by feeding their hens a mixture of flax, algae and canola.

Forced molting
The practice of extending the egg-laying lives of hens by withholding or changing the quality of feed until the birds shed their feathers. This process can last five to 14 days. When food is restored, the birds are rejuvenated and lay bigger and stronger eggs than before.

Only one of the Co-op’s egg suppliers, Chino Valley Ranchers, uses forced molting with their hens. The representative that I spoke with said that they change the value of the birds’ feed so the hens will molt at the same time and this helps to keep their production on a consistent schedule.

The practice of trimming a portion of confined hens’ beaks so that they will not hurt one another. None of the companies whose eggs are sold at the Co-op do beak trimming. However, all of the companies do use a less extreme practice of rounding their birds’ beaks through a laser “tipping” during the first 10 days of life.

A representative from Gold Circle Farm explained that hens in the production warehouses will peck at light filtering through the barns whether it’s on the floor or landing on another bird. With rounded beaks, the laying hens are less likely to injure one another when pecking at the light.

Battery cages
Most eggs produce in the United States come from industrialized factory farms that use this cage system to minimize the space needed to raise their hens and maximize their egg production. These wire “battery cages” are so restrictive the birds can’t spread their wings or engage in many of their natural behaviors, including nesting and dust bathing. Though the battery cage system is commonly used for egg production throughout the country, none of the Co-op’s suppliers use cages for their hens.

Due to animal welfare concerns, countries such as Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria have banned battery cages. The entire European Union is phasing out conventional cages by 2012. The Humane Society of California has launched a ballot initiative campaign to eliminate the use of these cages in California. For more information on their campaign, visit www.humanecalifornia.org. Though some California egg farmers are concerned that this regulation would only cause eggs produced in other states to flood the California market, this initiative will likely come to vote in November.

Certified humane
To qualify for this label, the birds must be uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

None of our suppliers use antibiotics with their laying hens. If a bird is sick, it is pulled from production.

Growth Hormones
These are not permitted for use with laying hens.

Color is determined by the hen’s breed. There is no dietary difference between white and brown eggs. Eggs of different colors will taste the same if the hens receive the same type of feed.

Expiration date
The “sell by” date can vary slightly from farm to farm, but the manager of Vega Farms, who supplies our bulk eggs, said that their eggs are marked to sell by 28 days after production. They can then stay in the refrigerator two to three weeks longer.

Fertile eggs
These come from hens that live with roosters, are nutritionally similar to non-fertile eggs, and taste the same.

Double yolks
Produced from young hens that lay small eggs. As the hen produces one egg, another is absorbed into it, resulting in a double yolk. You may notice double yolks in our bulk eggs, supplied by Vega Farms. This farm supplies chicks for the USDA’s National Poultry Improvement Plan and often has young hens in production at their farm.

The Co-op strives to provide our customers with the best products available. We understand that knowing our suppliers well, understanding their production practices and sharing this information with our shoppers is part of the action needed to help build a sustainable food system within our community.