Commercial egg producers are launching a public relations campaign to assure consumers that their confinement operations for chickens produce eggs as healthy as the eggs that come from pastured chickens. Local nutritionists and agricultural consultants disagree.
Consumers are buying more cage-free and organic eggs than ever before. Market share for cage-free eggs was about 1 percent in 2004. It increased to more than 3 percent by the end of 2012, according to the United States Department of Agriculture.
Egg producer organizations that represent confinement operators are funding studies to show standard production eggs are just as nutritious. “Egg quality is affected by the type of feed fed to the hens,” according to “Factors that Influence Egg Production,” published in 2013 by the American Egg Board, which represents producers with more than 75,000 hens.
“Since more is known about the nutrition requirements of the chicken than of any other domestic animal, it is not surprising that rations are scientifically balanced to assure layer health along with optimum quality eggs at the least cost.” The AEB assists producers by providing marketing information and studies to publicize the nutritional benefits of eggs, confinement operation eggs in particular.
Dr. Jayson Lusk of Oklahoma State University said in a market study published in 2013 that most of the change in consumer buying is because of animal welfare issues. “As consumers become more engaged with how their food is produced, they are driving sales of higher welfare animal products,” Lusk said.
Standard commercial egg-laying operations in the United States keep chickens in windowless, insulated and force-ventilated buildings, according to the AEB. Temperature, humidity and light are controlled to ensure laying efficiency. Molting, or loss of feathers, occurs at about 18 to 20 months of age, according to the AEB producer report. Rather than placing the flock into a controlled molt pattern, they are often sold for slaughter at this point and replaced.
“Battery cages deprive chickens of the ability to perform natural behaviors such as exploring, nesting, perching, dust bathing or simply stretching their wings;” according to “On the Farm,” a report published in June 2013 by the Animal Welfare Institute.
In addition to concerns about the welfare of chickens, consumers are buying free range, organic or small-farm eggs because the eggs are thought to be healthier. Dr. Kenneth Anderson, a professor in the Department of Poultry Science at North Carolina State University, published a study in 2011 stating there is no difference in egg nutrition based on how the chickens are raised. Anderson used 400 identical breed hens raised together until 12 weeks of age, when they were separated into free range or cage-rearing facilities. “A significant nutritional advantage of eggs produced by chickens housed on range versus cages could not be established,” according to the study.
The results are in conflict with studies by the smaller producers, as well as common-sense thinking, said Jordan Hoefing, Falcon nutritionist. “The study could have been using vegetarian egg feed,” Hoefing said. “Egg nutrition depends a lot on what the chickens are fed and what they have access to. Chickens are omnivores. Free range is starting to become a buzzword that is being corrupted by producers.” The USDA definition of free range includes merely access to the outdoors – not a real pasture where chickens can find natural foods, she said.
The bugs, worms and seeds that small-farm pastured chickens have access to increase the nutritional content of their eggs, said Dr. Stephen Kutscher, Falcon chiropractor. “Americans’ diets have way too high a ratio of omega-6 fats to omega-3,” Kutscher said. “Even if pastured eggs have a little higher fat content, it's mostly the extremely beneficial omega-3 fat.” An ongoing study that began in September 2007, sponsored by Mother Earth News magazine, shows that eggs raised on pasture contain twice the omega-3 fatty acids, three times the vitamin E content and seven times more beta carotene than conventional eggs.
Buying healthier eggs means navigating a mine field of regulated and un-regulated marketing phrases, Hoefing said. “I personally solely look for Certified Humane Eggs,” Hoefing said. “Organic means they're fed all organic grain, which has nothing to do with the other nutrients they have to get. Cage free only means they are all housed in an open barn, with still no access to dirt and scratch.”
The best way to know that eggs are coming from chickens with access to natural forage is to know the producer, Hoefing said. Living in Falcon allows residents opportunities to find eggs from small-farm producers and backyard chicken keepers. “You can look on Craigslist.com, since those folks don't often pay for websites,” she said. “Just by asking around, you'll find it's a lot more common than you think. These places need more people to buy them.”