Time to Test America’s Eggs

June 29, 2010

A study recently published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, brings up an interesting issue regarding the safety and possible health implications of consuming eggs from free range hens.

A study recently published in the Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry, brings up an interesting issue regarding the safety and possible health implications of consuming eggs from free range hens. Conducted in southern Taiwan, researchers investigated the environmental contaminant load (eg: pesticides and industrial pollutants) contained in free range eggs and found that on average, eggs from free range hens contained over five times the contaminants found in caged eggs, based on World Health Organization standards.  A previous study conducted in Europe between 1987 and 1999 also found increased levels of environmental contaminants in free range eggs versus their caged counterparts. Have America’s eggs ever been tested? Now would seem like the right time as consumers contemplate the switch to products they believe are more healthful. 
Clearly the industrial waste and pollution coping mechanisms and standards in the US are more stringent and vary greatly from those in Taiwan. It is also important to keep in mind that Taiwan is a fairly small, highly urban, industrial island with numerous municipal waste incinerators, which along with other factories with combustive processes, may release unintentional byproducts into the environment, according to the study’s researchers. 
So, what does it mean to be free range? Taiwanese free range hens are those that have continuous daytime access to open-air runs comprising an area mainly covered by vegetation during at least half their lifetime, according to researchers. The definition of free range however is not universal and in fact in the United States, free range is a widely misunderstood term, especially by consumers. All it means is that hens have access to the outdoors, which could range from a concrete paved slab to a beautiful grassy pasture; not necessarily that they avail themselves of the opportunity.
Clearly now is the time to clear up the confusion; first and foremost about the different terminology used to describe eggs in the market place and secondly to test our eggs for contaminants. It’s unacceptable for these industrial pollutants to be omnipresent in our environment, but it’s better to be aware of the possible issues than in the dark.
How are eggs marketed in the US?
Hormone free: The use of hormones in poultry has been banned since the 1960s. So by law, all eggs are hormone-free. If a carton offers this claim alone, it’s a waste of money if it costs more.
Natural: This is another meaningless term. According to regulations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, no additives or colors can ever be added to eggs. ?

Cage-free or Free-roaming: Over 90% of hens are raised in cages that are between 48 and 68 square inches. Birds that are cage-free or free-roaming are not caged; however, they likely were still raised within the confines of a small building and generally do not have access to the outdoors. So this is a distinction without much of a difference.
Grass-fed: There is no USDA-approved definition of this term when it comes to hens. Farms touting grass-fed egg laying hens claim their hens are as close to being “wild” as possible.  Grass-fed hens are usually allowed to roam freely and so they eat a variety of things found in their natural habitat: grass, bugs, and whatever animals they might catch and kill. All of these (individually and together) contain adequate protein. (Including vegetation)  Because this term is not USDA regulated, if you are interested in purchasing grass-fed eggs it may be best to get to know your farmer and their farming practices. 
Certified humane: For a farm to make this claim, it must meet specific criteria: The hens may not be caged; their feed must be vegetarian and contain no antibiotics; and the birds need to live in a natural environment that allows for behaviors like preening and scratching.

Fertile: These are eggs that, when incubated, will develop into chicks. They are no more nutritious than other eggs and are usually priced higher than others. Usually fertile eggs are cage free and come from hen houses where roosters roam as well; some consumers believe this is a more natural habitat.

USDA-certified organic: This means that the hens have eaten only organic feed and grain grown without fungicides, herbicides, commercial fertilizers, and pesticides and that their diet hasn’t contained any animal or poultry by-products.  The hens also have not been given any antibiotics or growth hormones, and they’ve been allowed access to the outdoor.