Eggs have always been a relatively inexpensive source of protein, perfect for the home cook trying to feed a crowd without spending a fortune. They're an obvious choice for breakfast (scrambled, fried, made into a frittata), but eggs can also serve admirably as lunch and dinner: Egg salad for lunch and spinach quiche for dinner are easy and filling options (even if you're feeding two teenaged boys).
But as inexpensive as eggs can be, there is such a thing as eggs that are too cheap, according to a recent article in Bloomberg. Here's why.
The basic explanation is fairly straightforward: When we choose to buy cheap, conventional eggs over pricier eggs that are labeled "cage-free," "free-range," or "pasture-raised," we're sending the message to farmers to keep doing things the way they've traditionally done things. Translation: Hens are squatting in spaces as small as 67 square inches. They're never allowed to spread their wings, go outside, or even walk.
Put like that, our choice as consumers seems equally straightforward: Paying 50 cents, a dollar, or even a few dollars more means better conditions for Henrietta and Henny Penny. Most of us, including myself, prefer the idea of using eggs from birds who aren't contained. The hens are less likely to become ill, and they generally lead better lives.
Only it's not simple at all.
The definitions of "cage-free," "free-range," or any of the other monikers designed to give consumers confidence are subject to minor, if any, federal regulation. In an awful lot of cases, our bucolic visions of happy chickens pecking and strutting and chatting with Wilbur the Pig are less than accurate.
A "cage-free" chicken can occupy as little as one-square-foot of space, just enough to occasionally spread her wings. "Free-range," another common label, means chickens have access to the outside, which they may or may not take advantage of. (If you have a teenager, you know that sometimes all the fresh air in the world won't tempt them off of the couch. This also applies to me, because a couch can be pretty comfy, but I digress.)
"Pasture-raised" is the most accurate description of the ideal. In general, it means chickens are grazed outdoors and are fed organic feed, free of hormones and antibiotics. But the term isn't regulated by the FDA either, so you don't really know.
More on the terminology around eggs: Know Your Eggs: The Cornucopia Institute's Organic Egg Scorecard
Because it's hard to know what we're really getting, we, as shoppers, are less likely to spend extra. The radical cheapness of conventional eggs does tempt discerning consumers trying to balance health and ethics with the need to feed a family within a budget.
One cook's take on free-range eggs: On Why I Pay $7.50 for a Dozen Eggs
Why should we pay the bump up in cost for "cage-free" eggs, or the much higher step up for local, pasture-raised or free-range eggs, which can cost as much as 10 times more? And where does our responsibility to the industry end and our bottom line begin?
If you can afford it, buying pasture-raised, cage-free, or free-range eggs is probably the right choice. You'll be supporting a move toward better practices and improvements in the entire industry, and the eggs may be healthier (although the data on that varies). My favorite eggs are the ones I buy from local farmers because those are most likely to meet my ideal criteria, and I'm willing (and able) to pay a premium.
But when you can't get to the farmers market or there are no local suppliers in your area, how do you decide? We're throwing it out to you, readers: What kind of eggs do you buy?