Food and Fitness Fundamentals
Until I began my research on eggs for this blog series, I was often confused when reading the labels on egg cartons. Distinguishing and understanding the difference between the conventional, cage free, free range and certified eggs appeared daunting.
As an educational tool for your next egg purchase, here’s an explanation of the basic housing systems and their relation to animal welfare and food safety used in commercial egg production in the United States.
Battery cages are used to confine approximately 95 percent of egg laying hens in the U.S. The hens live their allotted two years of life in an 18” x 20” barren wire cage which houses 5-11 hens, giving each hen less cage space than a letter size piece of paper. They are deprived of most natural behaviors such as walking, spreading their wings, nesting, perching, and dustbathing. Due to these conditions, they are at extreme risk of health problems, such as osteoporosis, which may cause breaking of bones when laying eggs, severe pecking of feathers on other hens, and loss of feathers due to rubbing on the wire cage. The hen’s beaks are substantially burned off (in both caged and cage-free hens) to reduce physical trauma during frequent fighting, and even cannibalism. Often their pain is so chronic from their partial beak amputation they will starve and eventually die. There has been such controversy over conventional housing, which is seen as cruel and inhumane treatment of hens, and many states are now trying to change current standards and practices.
The Humane Society has information to learn more about the welfare of hens in cages.
UEP Certified Modern Cage:
UEP certified eggs are produced on farms that voluntarily follow scientifically based animal welfare standards that aid in producing safe, high quality eggs. This program was developed by an independent committee and focuses on improving the overall care and handling of hens, such as providing them with increased space per hen, good air quality and separating the eggs from the hens’ waste to help reduce bacteria contamination including as Salmonella Enteritidis. UEP Certified farms are audited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or a third party, Validus. Some studies have shown that hens living in modern cages have a better controlled atmosphere and food is monitored more closely than with other housing styles. These hens may have a lower mortality rate, and the food quality of eggs from caged hens is reported to be at least as nutritious if not more so than cage free eggs. Learn more
UEP Certified Cage Free:
Again, this is a voluntary program that egg producers may follow as stated above; however, this description may be misleading since the hens may never have access to the outdoors. Cage free hens have a living environment that typically consists of a floor in a poultry house. Having UEP Certification ensures useable indoor floor space per hen, good air quality, nesting space and perches. Regular monitoring is crucial in order to remove laid eggs immediately to help prevent contact with waste and the contamination of bacteria.
When reading free range on an egg carton, people may visualize happy healthy chickens roaming throughout large open pastures. This may be far from the truth, as this phrase is not significantly regulated. For an egg to be labeled free range, USDA only requires that the farm has demonstrated that the hens were allowed continuous, free access to the outside for more than 51 percent of their life. It does not conclude hens were necessarily raised on a pasture, or carefully monitored.
As with organic eggs, similar food safety issues prevail with free range. Free range hens are prone to have direct contact with migratory and wild birds, rodents and other pests and feces. This exposure significantly increases the risk to highly contagious illnesses, such as Avian Influenza and Exotic Newcastle Disease and Salmonella Enteritidis.
Food safety is key:
No matter what kind of eggs you consume, practice caution and take the necessary steps to prevent food borne illnesses. As when preparing all eggs, it is important to wash hands, countertops and utensils thoroughly before and after handling, especially with the increased pathogen and bacteria exposure of free range eggs. Cook eggs thoroughly so both the whites and yolks are firm. Keep temperatures constant and below 45 degrees when storing eggs. Remember free range eggs are at highest vulnerability for bacteria and pathogens. Fluctuations in temperature can cause eggs to sweat. Warm moist conditions allow bacteria to multiply at dangerous levels very rapidly. Do not leave refrigerated eggs out at room temperature for more than two hours; if so, discard immediately.
Learn more about egg labeling.
Until next time, here’s to healthy eating!
Lori Dodds, RD, LD is a registered dietitian at The Corvallis Clinic Nutrition Services Department. She can be reached at 541-754-1370.