Local writer touts the benefits of locally produced eggs

Free-range, small-farm eggs differ from factory-farm eggs in color, shape, size, and nutrition value.
File photo by Tim Johnson

Free-range, small-farm eggs differ from factory-farm eggs in color, shape, size, and nutrition value.

On my counter there are two cartons of eggs. The differences between the two groups of eggs are remarkable. One carton has 12 uniform, white eggs, and in the other an assorted array of different colors and sizes — brown, pink, blue, and spotted, large and small. Which carton would you choose?

The cartons reflect a growing social debate between advocates for economically, commercially produced eggs, and locally raised farm eggs.

These days egg-lovers are faced with a wide variety of products to choose from at the grocery story: Free-Range, Farm-Fresh, Organic, Omega-3, Egg Beaters, the list goes on. To keep things simple I looked at the differences between the standard, commercially produced and sold eggs one finds at the larger markets and locally raised, free-range eggs.

The benefits of eating eggs have been debated for years. Whatever the social trend — to eat eggs, not to eat eggs — one thing has remained the same: their nutritional content.

Free-range chickens raised on a farm have a diet ranging from grass and greens to bugs, worms, and whatever else they find on the property. Sunlight is also an important factor in the health of the chickens.

Free-range chickens are allowed to pick and choose what they eat; so just like in humans, if they are deficient in a vitamin, they will inherently search for food that will replace that deficiency. Because free-range chickens have such a healthy, balanced diet, their eggs will reflect the health of the hens and have a nutritional boost that commercial eggs lack, according to advocates for local eggs.

Factory farms

Factories of 50,000 or more laying hens naturally are not the best environments for chickens. A hen that eats and roams around naturally will produce eggs naturally. A hen that lives in a highly stressful environment with other chickens that are equally stressed will not produce eggs in a natural way.

In some cases, hens are injected with antibiotics and hormones, and their diet is restricted to grains and animal by-products, which is not a diet chickens normally eat. To critics of that farming method, the eggs have flat, pale yellow yolks, thin shells, and a bland taste.

Simply because of the sheer volume of chickens in giant facilities, if a disease does break out it could potentially affect thousands of chickens and billions of eggs.

Tips for buying

When buying commercial eggs at the grocery store, check the Julian date, which is the day in the year the eggs were washed, graded and packed, (ex. January 1 is 001). The sell-by date is also on the egg carton, which is 30 days after packaging.

The plant number where the eggs were laid is also listed on the box. It is important information in the event of a recall. If a salmonella outbreak occurs, be sure to check the plant number to make sure you are not buying eggs from that source.

Know what you eat

Island Grown Initiative school coordinator Noli Taylor shows the difference in shell thickness between local and commercial eggs at local schools. The class does a simple test by placing a local egg and a commercial egg in a glass of water. The commercial eggs floats to the top, while the local eggs stays at the bottom of the glass.

This occurs she said because the commercial eggs sit on a shelf longer, the protective membrane wears off, the egg becomes porous, absorbs air, releases carbon dioxide, and the albumen becomes more acidic. The egg whites also shrink with time, allowing more air space between the egg and the shell.

They also look at the difference in yolk color. Local eggs have a rich, marigold-colored yolk, an obvious display of nutrients. By visiting local farms and gardens kids understand the difference in quality and adapt easily to eating foods that they grow and pick themselves.