The Chicken and the Egg: Why You Should Buy Your Eggs at the Farmers’ Market

If you’re going to do one nice thing this week, how about this: stop buying your eggs from the grocery store.  Like organic milk, organic, cage-free eggs at your grocery store are factory farmed.  Even the brands you think are socially responsible (Whole Foods 365, Horizon, Trader Joe’s) only meet minimal standards for animal welfare and are nowhere near as nutritious as real eggs.

Don’t kid yourself.  There are only two ways to get humanely raised, nutritious and delicious eggs:  1) buy some chickens or 2) go to the farmers’ market.  Currently I’m opting for the latter, although there has been a lot of talk around our house about getting a couple of hens.  We spend ten dollars a week on eggs, so it might be worth it.  Plus it would give the kids a chore to do outside.

The eggs I like are from Pinnacle Farms at the Town and Country farmers’ market.  They’re 5 dollars a dozen.  The downtown Saturday market has a few choices, too—including quail eggs (fun for kids’ lunches).  Wherever you go, talk to your farmer and find out whether her hens get to roam around eating bugs and other gross things (things crawling in cow pies are best, I’ve been told).  If they do—become a loyal customer of that farmer.

If your new eggs are indeed from foraged hens, the yolks will be bright orange and beautiful.  If you get eggs with dull yolks, take them back.

So why is it so important to buy your eggs from your local farmer?

Reason #1: They taste better.

If you’ve never had a fresh egg, you’re in for a treat.  They’re flavorful, creamy and delicate.  Make a quiche and you will be a true believer.  You’ll probably start eating a lot of poached, soft boiled and over-easy eggs, too.

Some things will taste especially good with fresh eggs:  cake, crème brule, fresh pasta, meringues, mayonnaise, and hollandaise sauce.

One drawback is that fresh eggs are a pain in the ass to hard boil.  I recently posted a complaint about hard boiled eggs on Facebook and I got a windfall of advice from friends.  I used 6 different methods, two cartons of eggs, and a lot of my time.  The best, by far, was from my friend Amy: Bring to a boil, turn off heat, put lid on for about 20 min, pour water out and cover in ice cold water or better yet, ice. ta da.

This method makes a perfectly textured and tasting egg—a delicate white and a fluffy, yellow yolk.  They’re beautiful.  But I still had trouble with the membrane sticking to the egg and they came out with many nicks and tears.

It turns out that fresh eggs don’t peel.  I waited ten days and it was much easier.   (Remember, though, if they float, they’re bad.)  I even added a teaspoon of baking soda for good measure.  I can’t say they were the most peelable  eggs I made, but when I peeled them carefully (starting from the fat end, of course) under water and they were fine.

Reason #2: They’re safer.

When bacterial outbreaks occur, they originate at factory farms and are magnified by the enormous scale of these operations.  Studies have shown that free range eggs are far less likely to be contaminated.  According to Michael Gregor, M.D., the  Director of Public Health and Animal Agriculture at The Humane Society of the United States:

In caged egg-laying hens, the most significant risk factor for flock infection is hen density per cage. Researchers have calculated that affording just a single quart of additional living space to each hen would be associated with a corresponding 33% drop in the risk of colibacillosis outbreak. This is one of the reasons many efforts to improve the lives of farmed animals is critical not only for animal welfare, but for the health of humans and animals alike.

Some argue that small farms and factory farms are equally likely to have salmonella outbreaks, but even if this is true, small farms can contain these outbreaks far better than factory farms.

Reason #3: They’re more nutritious.

The less you cook an egg, the more nutritious it is—and fresh eggs taste good enough and are safe enough to eat raw in egg creams and protein drinks. Even if you scramble or hard boil your new eggs, they will still be more nutritious .   Several studies have shown that truly free-range eggs (we’ll talk about “free range” in a moment) contain less cholesterol, less saturated fat, more vitamin A and E, and more omega-3 fatty acids.

Reason #4: You know what you’re getting.

If you absolutely must buy eggs at the store, Whole Foods in Phoenix carries World’s Best eggs and Vital Farms, neither of which is factory farmed.  Check out Cornucopia Institute’s egg scorecard to good eggs outside of Phoenix.

Whatever you do, don’t be fooled by the labelsThey mean next to nothing.

For example, “cage-free” just means they’re not in a cage.  It says nothing about how the chickens are raised or treated.  Most “cage-free” eggs are factory farmed.

The “organic” label, often means the chickens are treated more humanely, but as more and more producers start using the label as a marketing ploy, you can’t be sure your organic eggs aren’t factory farmed.

36,000 birds in an aviary system in Wisconsin, supplying Chino Valley Ranchers. The hens also have access to an outdoor run. Photo by The Cornucopia Institute.

The “free-range” label is even more dubious.  In his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safron Foer describes the treatment of “free-range” hens:

The USDA doesn’t even have a definition of free-range for laying hens and instead relies on producer testimonials to support the accuracy of these claims.  Very often, the eggs of factory-farmed chickens—chickens packed against one another in vast barren barns—are labeled free-range. . . .One can reliably assume that most “free-range” (or “cage-free”) laying hens are debeaked, drugged, and cruelly slaughtered once “spent.”  I could keep a flock of hens under my sink and call them free-range.

According to the Humane Society, the only label that means anything is Animal Welfare Approved.  This label, a program of the Animal Welfare Institue, assures the consumer it represents “The highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program.”

The birds are cage-free and continuous outdoor perching access is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Birds must be allowed to molt naturally. Beak cutting is prohibited.

Reason #5:  Fresh eggs aren’t evil.

Buying your eggs from your farmer is the least you can do.  If you want to do more, you can contact your Congressmembers and ask that they don’t pass HB 3798/S. 3239.

This proposed legislation will protect The United Egg Producers from lawsuits claiming they have illegally fixed prices (they’ve already been forced to pay over $25 million in settlements).  HR3798 would also, according to the Humane Farming Association, “deprive states of the right to enforce anti-cruelty laws which prohibit battery cages [and] deny state legislatures and voters their right to enact laws addressing many unsafe and inhumane egg industry practices.”

For fun, you can watch this weird animated short (produced by The Humane Farming Association) dramatizing the proposed legislation.

Really, though, it’s just an egg.  But if you’re going to buy a dozen, why not buy them from a farmer you trust instead of an industrial “farm” you don’t?  We use eggs so frequently, that we should enjoy them–we’ll enjoy them more if they’re worth what we paid for them.  This week, my mom’s showing me how my great-grandmother made eggs a la goldenrod.  I’m glad I have eggs that are worthy.


2 Comments on “The Chicken and the Egg: Why You Should Buy Your Eggs at the Farmers’ Market”

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