Friday, May 20, 2016

Free Range? Vegetarian Fed? No Soy? What does it all mean? -- An Egg Terminology Primer

Remember that a new cycle opens this weekend. Cycle B may or may not have your normal pick up site available as not all sites are open during both cycles. Additionally, not all producers will have listings both cycles. Christie Godsey at Ambrosia Farms can fill you in on which sites are available if you need to know sooner rather than later. Contact info on the Producer Page for Ambrosia Farms!


We love eggs! Fried, boiled, scrambled, you name it! They are delicious by themselves, the perfect foil for just about every herb, spice, meat, vegetable, cheese or pile of leftovers in your fridge, and we can't even begin to list how wonderfully they contribute to our favorite baked goods...Eating them is never the problem, but figuring out which ones to buy? Yikes! The terminology can be mind-boggling.

Below is a list of common terms associated with eggs accompanied by explanations as to exactly what these terms mean. From Free Range vs. Pasture Raised, Soy Fed vs. Soy Free, we compiled a comprehensive list and even included some information about storage and freezing. Yes, freezing! Read on for a quick but eggcellent eggucation.



There are many different labels for eggs, some have legal meaning, some do not. More importantly, some of the legal meanings may surprise you. We will try to cover everything for you, but do please let us know if you have a question that is not answered here. With the High Plains Food Co-op, please review each producer’s page to understand exactly how their birds are fed, kept and treated. **Please note that the term “producers” used in these definitions does NOT mean “HPFC Producers” but merely “egg producers” in general, i.e.: farms that raise hens for egg production regardless of where they are sold.

(not in alphabetical order)

“Certified ___”: The term “certified” is used in conjunction with other words (e.g.: organic, natural, humane) to designate that a producer is subject to guidelines set forth by some kind of governing body, be it the US government or some other non-governmental entity. Each certifying body sets the rules for use of the term in a particular area. The most commonly known certification in relation to food is “Certified Organic”. Certification processes are typically at least somewhat involved and costly. While holding a type of certification is useful for consumers to understand what minimum practices are followed, very small producers may not be able to afford the time and/or financial burden required for certification yet may still follow these practices.


Certified Organic: This is a legal term and may only be used by producers who meet certain standards which are audited through an outside agency to include that the hens are only fed certified organic feed, are not fed animal by-products (are vegetarian fed), are not kept in cages and have access to the outdoors. Organic feed by definition is free from GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and is non-medicated. Non-medicated feed is feed free from the routine use of low-level medications such as antibiotics. Medications are allowed to be used to treat an outbreak of disease or infection. Controversy regarding “certified organic” may be found in the “access to outdoors” requirement, which some producers (mostly very large scale) meet by merely providing a very small area that the chickens have access to, even if they do not use it and are not aware it is available (the term “bird brain” does apply here). “Access to outdoors” is not defined by time or quality.  The “vegetarian” diet requirement is not natural to chickens, who will eat all manner of insects and worms and may eat snakes, mice and similar non-plant beings when left to their own devices. Additionally, these birds may be subject to beak trimming, which is not prohibited.


Free Range: This term is not legally defined and therefore must be discerned through actual disclosure by each producer. Large scale commercial producers generally use this term to also mean “cage free”. While the term implies the birds have access to the outdoors and can be found in lush pastures several hours each day, they may actually be housed in a barn or other structure with or without access to the outdoors and the outdoor area may or may not support vegetation. Beak trimming is allowed. As there are no legal requirements attached to this term, it is best to check with your individual supplier for detailed information regarding what this means to them. “Certified Humane” eggs and poultry are subject to some rules in regard to the use of this term.


Cage Free: Like free range, this term may be used in many different ways. It is not legally defined and merely means the birds are not kept in cages. It does not mean anything additional and does not speak to concerns regarding food, outdoor access, and the like. “Cage free” also does not mean the birds have ample room and/or are not overcrowded.


Beak Trimming: Bird beaks may be trimmed to prevent excessive pecking either of themselves or other birds. Beak trimming is routine practice in most extremely large scale (thousands of birds) confinement operations. While the ends of the upper and lower beak are, like fingernails, “dead” at the tips, proper trimming must be done carefully and individually to prevent cutting the delicate structures of the mouth. Generally large scale operations do not take care to ensure they are only cutting the dead part of the beak. Confined birds and/or birds under stress are prone to excessive pecking, which may cause damage to the birds. This is the reason given for beak trimming.


Vegetarian Fed: The term “vegetarian fed” came about in response to the practice of feeding certain poultry-by-products (leftovers at poultry processing facilities) back to the poultry. Things such as feathers, feet, beaks and the like are sometimes dried, ground, and fed back to the animals. Chickens and other fowl are not vegetarians in the strict sense of the word, but neither are they normally canabalistic. They not only eat assorted bugs, but also may eat mice, snakes and the like. “Vegetarian Fed” is a compromise by the industry which indicates that no meat-by-products of any kind are fed to the chickens. Chickens who actually do go out of doors may have occasion to eat a crawling thing that is not strictly vegetarian.


Soy Fed/Soy Free: While there may be some debate over whether soy has any effect on the health of the actual birds, most of the debate surrounding soy fed versus soy free chicken feed centers on the needs and desires of the humans consuming the eggs and/or chickens. Most of the human concerns regarding soy in chicken feed are due to potential soy allergies and the concern that soy may increase estrogen-like hormones in people eating soy and soy products. Because meat and eggs from chickens fed a high-soy diet will have higher concentrations of soy protein, people with these concerns seek poultry products free from soy. Because most soy in the USA is from GMO seed stock, there are the added concerns regarding GMO foods. Organic soy is non-GMO and certified organic chickens or eggs may contain non-GMO soy. If you prefer soy-free poultry products, look for a producer who advertises “soy free” or who may feed soy but not as a major component of the birds feed.


Corn Fed/Corn Free: Similar to “soy fed/soy free” except without the concern for the hormonal influences. Those with corn allergies and/or those wishing to avoid GMO products should seek out “corn free” poultry products. Organic chickens and eggs may be fed organically grown corn.


Natural: Although there is now a “Certified Naturally Grown” organization ( ) .which promotes items that are “Certified Naturally Grown”, the word “natural” is not currently regulated. “Certified Naturally Grown” is not governed  by the USDA like “Certified Organic” is, but does carry some assurances as to farm practices and those farms using this designation are subject to inspection by other Certified Naturally Grown farmers. Because the word “natural” currently has no legal regulation, it is essentially meaningless. Discuss with your producer what they mean when they use this term.


Pasture Raised: Another term that is not legally defined and may mean different things to different consumers and to different producers. The term implies that the birds are given free access to quality pasture in which they are exposed to sunshine, grass, dirt and bugs. Because this term is not legally defined, the quantity of time on pasture and/or the quality of the pasture may be wildly variable. “Certified Humane” eggs and poultry are subject to some rules in regard to the use of this term.


Certified Humane: Like “Certified Naturally Grown”, the term “Certified Humane” is not a USDA-governed program, but those farms using this designation are subject to certain rules governing the treatment of farm animals and to inspection by program auditors.

Duck Eggs: Duck eggs seem intimidating and foreign to anyone used to plain old chicken eggs, but do give them a try. Generally pale blue in shell color, though some may be tan or brown, they do have a tougher shell membrane that makes them just slightly harder to crack than a normal chicken egg. But really only slightly. Inside you will find a yolk around twice as large as a chicken egg, with proportionately less white. Interestingly, when cooked the white will have a very pale bluish tint that is unusual only because we are used to whites being, well, white! Duck eggs are absolutely fine to eat just as you would any chicken egg, but they are more prized for the richness and lightness they bring to baked goods. Baked goods made with duck eggs will rise better and higher and will taste richer. Even though they are a bit larger than the standard chicken egg, you may successfully substitute egg for egg in baked goods recipes calling for fewer than two eggs. For recipes using three eggs or more, you may need to add a tablespoon or so of dry ingredients if the mixture appears too wet.

Egg Shell Color: Egg shell color is determined solely by the genetics of the breed of bird and although it is fun to purchase eggs that are multi-colored, the shell color has no bearing on the flavor or nutrition of the eggs.

Egg Season: The warmer months are the months of highest egg production. As the days get cooler and shorter, egg production wanes and birds begin to molt (shed) their summer feathers to grow in their winter feathers. During molting, few eggs are laid as energy is used for feather regrowth. Additionally, as the weather gets colder, more energy is used for warmth retention and much less on egg production. If you eat a lot of eggs, consider stocking up during the warm months (before the end of September) to ensure eggs are available in your household even during the times when egg availability is low. Eggs may be stored for quite a long time and may also be frozen (see: Storing Eggs, and Freezing Eggs).

Storing Eggs, Short and Long Term:  Many of the current rules in the US relating to egg storage and sales were made in response to commercial egg production. Few other countries require eggs to be refrigerated at all due to the inherent safety of the egg shell. Many of the beliefs held by US consumers regarding egg storage are actually cultural rather than grounded in fact. Rules regarding commercial egg sales (i.e.: the eggs you buy at the chain groceries) allow eggs past their “sell by” date to be shipped back to the processing facility to be repackaged with a later “sell by” date. As such, the eggs you receive “fresh” at a large grocery store may, in fact, be months old. Unfortunately, much misinformation has been spread regarding the long-term storage of eggs in the shell. To avoid violating any rules regarding the sale of eggs through the Coop, we may not enumerate the various non-refrigerated methods used throughout the world to store eggs for long periods, however you are encouraged to research this information yourself to make the best decisions for you and your family.

Freezing Eggs: Yes, eggs may be successfully frozen, however they must be removed from their shell first. Because freezing will generally cause the yolk covering membrane to burst, thawed eggs are best used for baking and for scrambled egg dishes. Crack the desired number of eggs into freezer-proof containers or freezer bags and thaw overnight in the refrigerator. Single eggs may also be cracked into a lightly greased muffin pan, frozen, then popped out and placed into a freezer-proof container for individually frozen eggs.

Hard Boiled Eggs: Hard boiled eggs are a treat and great to have on hand for egg salad or for addition to any number of dishes. They are less of a treat when peeling the egg results in a ragged mess because the shell will not peel away properly from the egg. There are innumerable methods described in cookbooks to alleviate this mess, however the easiest method is to start with eggs that are several weeks old. Because egg shells are slightly porous, over time the inner shell membrane will shrink and a slight amount of air will replace this space. This combination allows for easier peeling. You may successfully hard boil fresher eggs by making a small hole in the large end where the air sac (air cell) is located (see diagram) with a thumbtack (press gently but firmly and use a slight twisting motion with the tack). The air hole will assist in separating the membrane from the egg. After the desired amount of boiling time for soft or hard boiled eggs, plunge the cooked eggs into an ice water bath to further loosen the membrane and cease cooking.

Poached Eggs: Poached eggs may successfully be made without a special egg poaching pan if you take care to use only the freshest eggs. The egg white (called an albumen, see diagram) has two parts. The inner white is nearest the yolk and much thicker and tighter while the outer white is thinner and looser and will spread or run. The fresher an egg is, the firmer the inner white will be and the smaller the outer white will be. Over time, the inner white will thin, becoming less discernable from the outer, thin white. This is why you may only use fresh eggs for poaching in an open pan of hot water or broth.

We do hope we have shed some light on some of the more ambiguous egg terms you may encounter. Are there more you are interested in? Just ask!

As always, if you have any questions regarding the practices of any HPFC Producer, any of them will gladly answer whatever questions you have, you need only ask. There is no substitute for a personal relationship with the people who raise your food.

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