Normally I get ALL of my eggs from the farmer’s market because the gal that brings in the supply lives right over in Chesapeake and lets her hens run wild and treats them well. And, they eat organic feed too. It’s quite a nice luxury to be able to learn about these wonderful qualities, but then again, that’s kind of how farmer’s markets are supposed to work.
Last week, I didn’t realize I was down to one lonely egg and it was Sunday morning. In my house, Sunday breakfast is a ritual and I desperately needed eggs. So I hopped over to the Teeter to pick up a eggs and was looking for my organic, cage free dozen. There I was in front of the cooler that was home to about 659 varieties of eggs; cage free, free roaming, free range, organic, antibiotic free, vegetarian fed, and of course the regular large eggs with nothing special to show for.
I am usually very confident in my edible selections because education about my food is important to me and I read articles and books, watch documentaries, and the like to heighten my awareness. Even with my knowledge base, I stood there starting to chill from the cool air breezing out of the refrigerated dairy section absolutely perplexed at which container to pick up. Obviously, I wasn’t going to pick up the regular large eggs because that’s one thing I won’t support. I won’t touch on it now, because it saddens me to even think about it, but it’s a story for another time. Honestly, after leaving the market, I was miffed. How can all of these eggs sit on market shelves and not come along with a dictionary? I decided to make it my business to research the egg-spread and share my findings.
I did a few Google searches and page after page authored by animal rights groups or environmentalists littered the screen. I didn’t want the feedback of my own because those aren’t the folks labeling the eggs so I went straight to the source; the United States Department of Agriculture. My theory is that egg companies can’t label according to what they “want” the definition to be, but instead have to follow guidelines set forth by the government. My initial excitement that the USDA website would provide me with easy, quick answers faded fast. Scrolling through navigation menus and doing keyword searching was bringing me nothing of what I wanted. I kept at it and finally found the needle in the haystack.
FREE RANGE and/or FREE ROAMING: One in the same in the eyes of USDA states that free range or free roaming cluckers must have “access” to the outdoors. In short, this means that hens can still be piled into chicken houses as long as there is a small door to the outdoors which leads to an undefined amount of space. It could mean that chicken farmers actually let the hens run free or could mean that they live shoulder to shoulder with one tiny door leading to a 4’ by 4’ space which is only accessible for 30 minutes a day.
CHEMICAL FREE: Sounds fantastic, but this term is actually not allowed to be used on USDA food.
NATURAL: Containing no artificial ingredients or added color which would alter the original state of the food. More importantly, when companies place this term on your package, they are required to explain themselves (i.e. no added color).
NO HORMONES: Aha…light bulb moment. Hormones are not allowed to be used on pork or poultry products so stating that they are hormone free must be followed by the phrase, “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”
NO ANTIBIOTICS: For red meat and poultry, using this on packaging is only allowed if the company has provided USDA with proper documentation showing they walk the walk.
ORGANIC: Must be produced using at least 95% organic ingredients which means organic eggs prove the hens were eating feed that was certified organic under these standards. The National Organic Program also allows the use of “Made with organic ingredients” if at least 70% organic products are utilized.
When I was reading through the National Organic Program fact sheet, I kept coming across a phrase that makes me wonder about non-organic food; “cannot be produced using excluded methods, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation.” Obviously, the organic food can’t use these methods as the fact sheet stated, but others can? Makes you wonder.
Something else worthy of noting is that there are no restrictions for agricultural products when it comes to labeling claims like “no drugs or growth hormones,” “free range,” or “sustainably harvested.” The USDA is assuming that if one labels an ag product sustainably harvested, they would only say it if it were true.
All definitions were summarized from the USDA website.