There's plenty of opportunity to wince while watching the must-see new film Food, Inc (hopefully coming soon to a theatre near you.) One of my more minor wince moments was when uber-organic farmer Joel Salatin defends the exorbitant cost of his pasture raised eggs...at $3.00 per dozen.
I wish. I pay $7.50/dozen to my farmer when she comes into the city to deliver the eggs and veg every other week. (I guess that's the difference between living in San Francisco and rural Virginia.) These are gorgeous, pasture-raised eggs (pictured above) with vivid, deep orange yolks and thick whites. They cook up beautifully and I find it almost impossible to cook with or eat anything else.
What does 'pasture-raised' mean and how is it different from 'cage-free' or 'free-range'? And are pasture-raised eggs worth it?
First off, terms like 'free-range' and 'cage-free' don't always mean what people think (and hope) they mean. In fact, because there is very little regulation for these words, they basically have no meaning whatsoever. Cage-free is simply that the chickens aren't raised in battery cages but that doesn't mean they aren't stuffed into huge houses with forty thousand other chickens, leading only a slightly less miserable life than if they were in cages. And free-range chickens do have access to the outdoors, but it does not mean that they are actually using it.
Right now, the term 'pasture-raised' isn't very regulated either. In general, it refers to a system where the chickens are grazed outdoors in movable shelters and are fed organic feed, free of hormones and antibiotics. Pastured chickens are allowed to be chickens: scratch in the dirt, eat bugs, take dust baths. It's a fairly new term and until someone comes along to exploit it, it's the one I trust the most.
Of course there are farmers who use all these terms in the spirit in which they are intended, which brings me to my point: find a good farmer you can trust and pay what you can for their products. The American Pastured Poultry Producers website will help you find a farmer in your area.
The question 'are pasture-raised eggs worth it?' is a tricky one. It depends of course on your ability to pay that much for them but even more, it depends on what you value. I spend more for my eggs because in the matrix of my life, they hit high marks in all the areas that matter most to me: taste, living lightly, stewardship, connection, beauty.
At $7.50 /dozen, I buy and eat less eggs than usual, which is fine with me. Of course I wish they didn't cost so much and not only in defense of my own pocketbook. In a more perfect world, everyone would be eating pasture-raised eggs and not just those who are wealthy (or obsessed) enough to afford them. We're not there yet, but I'm working on it!
For more information on the confusion around cage-free, free-range and other terms, check out this article from Mother Earth News.
(Image: Dana Velden)