By David Bernard
Sometimes free-range eggs are not really so free range after all. While the growing specialty egg industry has advanced animal welfare and supplied retailers with more nutritious, flavorful eggs to sell, it has also misled at times, and there continues to be confusion among consumers over the various types of eggs. With no legal standards as to what constitutes most of the main types of specialty eggs, including free-range, cage-free and pasture-raised, retailers can end up selling eggs laid by hens that are not treated as well as one might think.
The term “free-range” is generally taken to mean that hens have access to the outdoors. It does not necessarily mean, however, that the bird actually goes outdoors. “Free range often means there is just a small hole allowing passage from indoors to outdoors,” said Dan Brooks, Director of Marketing and Communications for Vital Farms, a national specialty egg producer based in Austin, Texas. “However, the birds are often given no encouragement to go outdoors, and the small hole inherently makes it difficult for the bird to get outside. Or a producer might let the birds outside, but only for a small amount of time each day.”
For many consumers, free-range is an attractive term that conjures images of wide open spaces and grass-covered hills where hens wander freely. However, that definition more closely applies to another type of specialty egg: pasture-raised. Vital Farms, the only third-party certified national producer of pasture-raised eggs, as defined by respected verifier Certified Humane, provides 108 square feet of outdoor space per bird. In addition, the company rotates hens between areas that contain fresh grass and feed. Unlike typical commodity egg-laying hens, the company’s birds are not treated with hormones or antibiotics.
Pasture-raised eggs provide a wealth of benefits for consumers. Compared to commodity eggs from caged hens, pasture-raised eggs have been demonstrated to provide more vitamin D (four times the amount), beta carotene (seven times), vitamin E (three times) and vitamin A (66 percent more). They may also contain 33 percent less cholesterol and 25 percent less saturated fat. According to Brooks, pasture-raised eggs taste better as well. “We get so many emails from customers where they say, ‘Thank you. This is the best egg I’ve ever tasted,’” he said.
In addition to pasture-raised and free-range eggs, there are also cage-free eggs, in which hens typically live indoors in a floor-based housing or aviary system, rather than in the small, two- to-three-bird cages typical of the commodity egg industry.
Still, even within the three main categories of specialty eggs, there can be even further demarcations, such as organic and Non-GMO Project Verified eggs, as well as nutritionally fortified eggs. Through the use of specialized feed, nutritionally fortified eggs contain higher levels of one or more nutrients, such as omega fatty acids, protein, beta carotene, vitamin D, vitamin E, folate and various antioxidants. USDA organic, the only regulated category in the specialty egg industry, pertains mostly to the feed that is used to grow hens. The label means the producer uses feed that is non-GMO and has been grown or produced without the use of pesticides. Free-range and pasture-raised eggs can be certified as organic. Cage-free eggs cannot be certified in this way.
Whether it is because of the more humane treatment of hens, enhanced nutritional benefits or better flavor, consumers have spoken, boosting the specialty egg industry to roughly 10 percent of the larger $9.4 billion U.S. table egg market. This is double what the specialty egg market was just five years ago. There has been a particularly sharp increase over the last 18 months. This jump is partly due to an increase in the price of commodity eggs (attributed to higher grain prices). Now that consumers are absorbing less of a hit when they move up to specialty eggs, there appears to be a changing consumer mindset.
“Food isn’t just something that people are using for nutrition nowadays,” said Jasen Urena, Director of Specialty Eggs at NestFresh, a national specialty egg producer and distributor based in Fullerton, California. “It has actually become part of their value system. The animal welfare aspect of specialty eggs and the environmental sustainability aspect with organic and non-GMO – these are becoming hot topics to consumers. And this has caused amazing growth over the last 18 months.” According to Urena, some mass retailers on both coasts are seeing specialty eggs account for a whopping 30-35 percent of sales, up from 6-7 percent just five years ago.
NestFresh produces and distributes cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised, non-GMO and organic eggs, including nutritionally enhanced varieties, through its brands NestFresh, The Country Hen, Horizon Organic and a variety of retailer private labels. The company forgoes the use of hormones or antibiotics, as is typical of commodity egg producers. Its products are all certified as humane by several third-party verifiers.
Consumers are not the only ones driving the specialty egg trend, however, with state regulators getting into the game as well. Beginning in January, California will outlaw the use of conventional cages, although legal wrangling continues over whether the statute as written also bans larger, so-called “enriched” cages that hold 15-20 birds. Other states are considering similar laws.
While both consumer awareness and specialty egg sales are increasing, there appears to be much room for growth. At least 90 percent of domestic table eggs come from caged hens that average just 8.5 inches by 8.5 inches of living space. “Our research indicates that most consumers are simply not aware of this, and those that are do not support it,” said Jenni Danby, Marketing Director at The Happy Egg Co., a national specialty egg supplier based in San Francisco. “Consumer education is such a large part of what we do. For a bird with a 30-inch wingspan to have a space that is smaller than a piece of standard printer paper – we think consumers are entitled to know this.”
The Happy Egg Co. supplies free-range eggs from hens that do not receive antiobitics or hormones and are free to roam in grassy fields every day with at least 14 square feet of space per bird. This space allotment handily exceeds all current third-party free-range standards. The two-and-a-half-year-old company supplies over 4,000 retailers, and its products are all certified as humane by several third-party verifiers.
Some producers are finding that humane treatment of hens pays a production dividend. John Brunnquell, President of Warsaw, Indiana-based Egg Innovations has seen the benefits of moving from a commodity, caged production model to various levels of specialty production. After taking over his family’s egg farm following college, Brunnquell decided to transition to specialty eggs. “Every time we took another step forward in animal welfare, whether it was adding perches, letting the birds outside [or] expanding the outside area – every time we did this, our production went up,” he said.
Not only did Egg Innovations’ egg output increase, so did the quality. “We’ve seen deeper, darker yolks and improved shell strength, and we attribute this to a healthier bird” Brunnquell said. “Now on flavor, that’s obviously a subjective discussion, but it’s typical for consumers to come back to us and say, ‘These eggs taste different. They taste better.’” Egg Innovations is a national supplier of free-range and organic free-range eggs, including several types of nutritionally enhanced eggs. The company, which is preparing to launch a third-party certified pasture-raised egg, does not use hormones or antibiotics, and its products are certified as humane by several third-party verifiers.