Most of the eggs available in grocery stores are produced in indoor industrial-scale facilities that enclose thousands of hens, often in small cages. On the other end of the egg spectrum are smaller flocks of hens raised on pasture, where they can peck and scratch, forage, exercise, and engage in other behaviors that are important to their well-being. Some operations fall somewhere in between.
Here’s a basic rundown of terms you may see when shopping for eggs. The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market allows only pasture-raised eggs to be sold in our markets. You can learn more here.
- Cage-free: Hens live without cages in indoor facilities and do not necessarily have access to the outdoors. The amount of space per hen varies by producer.
- Fertile: These eggs come from hens that live with roosters. Most are cage free.
- Free-range (free-roaming): The term simply means the hens have been allowed access to the outside, but for an undetermined period of time. These hens may be, but generally are not, raised outdoors. From a sustainability perspective, indoor free range egg facilities are a far cry from pasture-based operations, but the eggs have been shown to be safer for consumers than eggs from caged hens. In fact, 16 different studies have shown that eggs from caged chickens are much more likely to be carriers of salmonella.
- Hormone-free: The use of hormones in laying hens was banned in the 1960s.
- Organic: Hens are given only certified organic vegetarian feed without pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers or antibiotics. Hens have access to the outdoors. Organic chicken operations must be certified by designated agencies.
- Pastured: Hens are raised outdoors on pasture, usually using movable enclosures (hens also have access to a coop for shelter and egg laying). This enables hens to eat a variety of natural foods, such as different grasses, seeds and insects. Some scientific evidence indicates that, because of this diet, eggs from pasture-raised hens have less cholesterol and fat, higher omega-3 fatty acids, and higher amounts of lutein, beta-carotene, and vitamins A & E. The term “pasture-raised” is not regulated; in other words, it is up to the producer to provide eaters with a certain level of transparency around their operation and up to the eater to ask questions.
- Vegetarian: Eggs are produced by hens whose feed is free of animal by-products.
For more on humane egg production, see Egg Carton Labels: A Brief Guide to Labels and Animal Welfare from the Humane Society of the United States.
Historically, the egg has heralded the arrival of spring. Hens naturally lay fewer eggs in the winter when days are short, and pastured eggs are scarce at farmers markets in the winter. Egg production begins to steadily increase as the days lengthen. Artificial lighting and controlled climate in most large-scale egg production facilities have eliminated seasonal fluctuations in egg laying.
Farmers market shoppers will encounter eggs in a surprising variety of hues; in addition to the typical brown and white eggs, a carton might contain shades of light peach, beige, and even pale green. The color of the egg is determined by the breed of the hen.