Buying food used to be a fairly easy process. I went to the store and just bought whatever what was on sale, whatever I had a coupon for, or whatever brand my mother bought while I was growing up.
It’s not so simple anymore. As awareness grows about the dangers of processed foods, chemical additives, pesticides, antibiotics, growth hormones and labels in general, it’s increasingly difficult to know how to buy healthy food.
Caged chickens have a higher rate of salmonella
Since I can’t digest too much information at once – or make too many changes at the same time – I decided to start with educating myself about eggs. I love eggs, and generally start the day with two, something I’m thrilled is actually endorsed by the nutrition powers-that-be. Eggs, it turns out, are packed with all kinds of good-for-you nutrients and also are convenient, low cost and low calorie.
I love to eat my eggs soft boiled, sunny side up or poached, which never used to be a problem until salmonella became an issue. The foodborne bacterial illness – which causes 40,000 cases of food poisoning each year – is often traced to undercooked eggs, the worst case being in 1994 when 224,000 Americans became sick. Another bad case was in 2010 when 1,300 people got sick from eggs. There was even talk of putting warning labels on egg cartons and menus that eggs – like beef – must be thoroughly cooked.
All it takes is one sick hen to spread the disease to all the others before there’s an epidemic of salmonella-infected eggs. That’s the problem with industrial farming: hens are jammed into cages, unable to stand, let alone move.
So buying eggs that come from “cage-free” hens should be better, right? Well, not necessarily. Aside from “organic,” labels are mostly unregulated and that’s what makes it so hard for consumers. Eggs labeled “free range” or “cage free” lead people to think the hens are roaming about an open field. They’re not. There’s actually no legal definition for either term. All those terms mean is that the hens are not kept in cages. They can be kept jammed into large, indoor spaces, however, without enough room to even spread their wings. And neither term is any indication of what they’re fed, which means pesticides, antibiotics and hormones can all be part of the recipe.
The rules for certified organic are legally defined and do offer some guarantees, like hens have to live cage-free, with access to outdoors. They also eat an organic, hormone-free diet that’s free of genetically modified organisms. Granted, this is no guarantee that their eggs will be disease-free. But the odds are better. In a British survey, 25 percent of caged hens were infected with salmonella compared to just 5 percent of organic hens. In six other U.S. studies it was concluded that people who ate eggs from caged hens had twice the risk of getting salmonella compared to people who ate eggs from cage-free hens.
Organic is the best bet, but they’re about double the price of conventional eggs, and not as readily available. It’s also easy to be tricked. I used to buy Egglands Best Eggs, thinking I was getting something better, something organic. I pictured hens roaming about in an open field, feeding on fresh, organic grains. The label makes a lot of health claims, dropping words like “natural” and “cage-free” and health claims like less cholesterol, more omega 3, B12 and D. Then I realized that nowhere on the label did it say “organic.” Egglands Best does make organic eggs, but the ones most commonly found in supermarkets aren’t. Further digging uncovered complaints to the FTC over deceptive claims, and a bad rating from the Cornucopia Institute that Eggland’s organic eggs came from a dozen different producers that were known for poor hen house conditions that offered little to no transparency. In fact, many of the most commonly found supermarket organic egg producers had poor ratings and were on an industrial scale.
Overall, studies indicate that cage-free of any kind is still safer than industrial brands, and organic is likely the safest bet of all. For me, organic is the way to go when I am going to eat cake batter and runny eggs. But when I’m cooking eggs thoroughly, I guess I’ll go the less expensive route.
I can’t wait to start researching chicken …