Monday, June 18, 2012

Free-range Chickens Produce the Best Eggs

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 by Laura Sayre — Title photograph by Matthew Stallbaumer

If you’ve eaten eggs from hens raised with access to fresh green pasture, you know how different these eggs look and taste in comparison to your ordinary supermarket variety. The egg yolk color is probably the first thing you notice: a deep, bright orange-yellow instead of a light, pastel shade. If you sample a few different eggs in individual bowls and compare them, you’ll see other differences, too. In eggs produced by free-range chickens, the yolks are firm and round and their whites stay intact when you crack them. In ordinary supermarket eggs, the yolks are often flat, with loose, watery whites. These visual differences of color and texture signify flavor, nutrition and performance benefits. Many people suggest that free-range chicken eggs taste meaty and protein-dense. They easily complement other foods like cheese, herbs and vegetables. In cooked egg dishes, the richly colored yolks make them look as good as they taste.

Common sense can tell you that free-range chicken eggs are healthier. Pastured chickens that consume a more nutritious diet naturally produce more nutritious eggs. Scientific evidence is accumulating to support that theory.

In 1999, Barb Gorski, a pastured chicken producer in Pennsylvania used a grant from the USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program. She wanted to have meat and eggs from her own chickens and from two other farmers tested for a variety of nutritional factors. Results of the study indicated the pastured-raised chicken eggs contained 10 percent less fat, 40 percent more vitamin A, 34 percent less cholesterol, and four times as much omega-3 fatty acids when compared to commercial eggs’ standard values as reported by the USDA. The free-range chicken meat (with skin on) contained 50 percent more vitamin A, 21 percent less fat and 30 percent less saturated fat than the USDA standard.

In 2005 and 2007, Mother Earth News reported similar outcomes after testing eggs from pastured flocks across the country. Their findings showed that pastured eggs had approximately one-third less cholesterol, nearly three times as much vitamin E, seven times more beta-carotene and twice the amount of omega-3s as compared to the standard USDA data. A follow-up study in 2008 confirmed that pastured eggs contain three to six times more vitamin D as well. Pastured eggs also normally contain higher levels of carotenoids such as lutein and zeaxanthin, which are associated with good eye health.

Understanding at least one positive quality of pasture-raised eggs isn’t difficult. Jo Robinson created the Web site to assist people in understanding the benefits of pasture-raised livestock products. Robinson points out that as far back as 1966, when a classic study was published in Poultry Science, there was confirmation that egg yolk color is a reliable indicator of beneficial carotenoid levels. The more carotenoids the eggs contain, the darker shade of orange their yolks will be.

Free Range Eggs vs. Commercial Eggs
Most eggs sold in supermarkets are nutritionally inferior to eggs laid by hens raised on pasture. That’s what the editors of Mother Earth News magazine concluded upon the completion of their 2007 egg-testing project. The testing determined that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient records for commercial eggs, free-range eggs from hens raised on pasture contain:

      • 1/3 less cholesterol
      • 1/4 less saturated fat
      • 2/3 more vitamin A
      • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
      • 3 times more vitamin E
      • 7 times more beta-carotene

These results originate from 14 flocks throughout the country that range freely on pasture or are housed in movable pens that are rotated to maximize access to fresh pasture and protection from predators. The editors took six eggs from each of 14 pastured flocks tested by an accredited laboratory in Portland, Ore. The results were comparable to test results from 2005, when eggs were tested from four free-range flocks. The tests weren ’t the first to confirm that pastured eggs are more nutritious. The editors believe these dramatically differing nutrient levels result from the different diets of birds producing these two types of eggs. True free-range birds consume a chicken’s natural diet – various kinds of seeds, green plants, insects and worms, in addition to grain or laying mash. Factory farm birds never see the outdoors, let alone forage for a natural diet. Their feed consists of the cheapest possible combination of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals, with all kinds of additives.

Fresh farm eggs come in a wide variety of colors. — Photo by Matthew Stallbaumer

Keeping Chickens for Eggs
Buying eggs shouldn't be complicated, but it is. It's no wonder that some people are keeping chickens for eggs at home, rather than getting their egg supply at the grocery store. Look in the egg case at the supermarket, and you'll find a variety of different types of eggs: white and brown, large and extra large, even organic and conventional. There are also now omega-3 eggs, vitamin-enriched eggs and cage-free eggs. These new designer eggs cost a lot, too. But how do you know what you are really getting for your money?
It's true, some eggs are healthier, tastier and more environmentally friendly – but it's hard to know exactly what you're getting when you buy at the supermarket. Much of the hype is unregulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The consumer has to decide what it all means – and if a carton of eggs deserves the price it carries.

One strategy is to research the egg companies. Are they big? Who are the main stockholders? Where are they located? Another strategy is to find a local source of fresh eggs. The most cost-effective approach over the long run is to raise a few chickens of your own, if it's a feasible option.
In many areas nationwide, even in suburbs and cities, people are discovering that keeping hens for eggs takes little effort. They can keep just a few birds, and not only do they get great eggs, they also have fun doing it.

Mad City Chickens is one example. In April 2002, Alicia Rheal and Bryan Whiting of Madison, Wis., had been raising six hens in a small coop behind their home for almost a year. One day, an animal control worker paid them a visit.

"Apparently, someone was concerned we were going to eat them," Rheal says. The animal control worker referred them to a zoning officer as he wasn't actually sure of the city's rules on keeping chickens. The zoning officer indicated that city ordinances permitted an unlimited number of chickens to be kept inside a house, but keeping outdoor poultry was prohibited. "He was really nice about it, though," Rheal says. "He suggested we try to get that changed."

The couple gave away their hens, made contact with a city council member, and began speaking to neighbors. They submitted an article for their local newspaper, asking for support. Soon after, they uncovered a booming "urban chicken underground," dozens of city dwellers who were quietly raising chickens, and who were happy to come out.

"There was one fellow three blocks away who'd had chickens for 20 years," Rheal says. "We ended up meeting all these terrific people."

In 2004, Madison changed the poultry ordinance. Today, Mad City Chickens has an annual summer Coop Tour and a fall "Pro-Poultry People Potluck," each event drawing up to 80 people. Rheal and others offer a two-hour City Chickens 101 class to teach would-be chicken owners the basics of coop design and other helpful tips. An online discussion group encourages members to combine purchases of chicks and to share ideas.

Madison is not the only city in the U.S interested in chickens. The organic gardeners' group Seattle Tilth has been offering chicken classes and coop workshops for nearly 20 years; similar movements are happening in Minneapolis and Portland, Ore. As egg prices rise along with concerns surrounding food quality and safety, "pro-poultry people" from San Francisco to Brooklyn are exercising their right to raise chickens within city limits.

Whether you live in the city or country, you can find healthy, delicious, farm-fresh eggs — and even raise a few happy chickens of your own. — Photo by Cindy Singleton

Understanding terms like certified organic, omega 3 and cage free All those new varieties of eggs in the local supermarket have all the information you need listed right on the label, right? Well, that depends. Here’s an abbreviated guide to some of the more common label claims straight from the supermarket egg case:

“Cage Free,” “Free Range” or “Free Roaming.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the terms “Free Range” and “Free Roaming” simply mean those hens have “been allowed access to the outside.” “Free Range” usually means the hens are raised in big flocks in large open warehouses as opposed to stacked cages. They can roam around, flap their wings and preen their feathers. Because outdoor access is not clearly defined, it is probably extremely limited, and their time outdoors, if any, is likely on dirt or concrete rather than on grass or pasture. “Cage Free” does not mean outdoor access.

“Certified Humane.” A certification program operated by Humane Farm Animal Care specifies that laying hens are uncaged and have access to perches, nest boxes and dust-bathing areas. Outdoor access is not required and there are stocking-density maximums. Beak trimming (but not debeaking) is also allowed; starvation to induce molting is strictly prohibited.

“Certified Organic.” Production processes must obey the USDA National Organic Program, which includes organic, vegetarian feed, no antibiotics and no cages. Debeaking and forced molting by starvation are allowed. Organic standards require producers to “maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of the animals.” It is still being debated how much access to the outdoors is required. On some large organic chicken farms, it may only mean that a small door opening onto a concrete yard exists.

“Omega 3.” All eggs contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids beneficial to human health. Omega-3 levels in eggs can be raised in many ways, such as supplementing the birds’ diet with fish oil, alfalfa meal or flax seed, or by allowing the birds to naturally forage on lawn or pasture.

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