THE FOODIE FILES: Egg carton conundrum

By on September 8, 2015

If you’re going to put an egg on it, make it a good egg

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(From left to right), Egg carton buzz words – what do they all mean?; The Hole Egg company’s fine organic specimens; poached eggs on a bed of kale and tomatoes (find the recipe below). (Photo: Annie Fenn, MD)

How do you like your eggs? I like mine exactly the way I have told hundreds of pregnant women over the years not to cook their eggs (for fear of contracting Salmonella): gently poached or fried, with a creamy yolk that, when pierced with a fork seeps into the perfect puddle for dipping my toast. It’s not that I have no regard for food safety — who could forget the recall of 550 million eggs in 2010 after an outbreak of Salmonella that sickened thousands of people? Anyone who eats undercooked eggs is at risk for contracting Salmonella, the bacteria that causes serious gastro-intestinal distress, especially dangerous for children, elderly, and immunosuppressed persons.

I don’t worry too much about Salmonella in my runny eggs. Why? Because I’m really careful about the eggs I buy. And, although it’s no guarantee that I’ll never get sick, I’ve learned a few tricks about reading an egg carton that may reduce my chances. Let’s test your Egg Carton IQ:

The label says: Cage-free. There’s a picture of a chicken in front of a big red barn. This means a) The chickens roam outside most of the day pecking at corn kernels and juicy grubs, spreading their wings at will; b) The chickens sleep in a barn but wander freely outside into the sunshine; or c) They live in aviaries, massive industrial barns that house thousands of birds, with an average of one square foot of living space each.

The hen’s diet is touted to be Vegetarian. This means a) The chickens have eschewed their natural diet of bugs and forage for a more salad-like selection of kale, Brussels sprouts and nutritious grasses; b) Although chickens normally eat pork and beef, these hens are only fed vegetables; or c) Their vegetarian diet consists of amino acid fortified soy and corn feed.

The carton says Free-Range. This means a) This is a happy hen who gets to go outside anytime it wants, and frequently leaves the barn to frolic in the sunshine; or b) The chickens enjoy special privileges, like getting to visit the cows in the pasture; or c) They live cage-free in a large aviary with a small doorway that leads to a small screened-in porch that gives access to the outdoors, although in reality they are habituated to never using it.

Farm Fresh! This means a) The farmer got up really early to collect eggs and drove them to the supermarket while they were still warm; or b) The eggs were at one point fresh and are from chickens raised on farms; or c) The eggs may or may not come from a farm, and most likely come from a large aviary, and they may or may not be “fresh,” which has no official definition.

Did you guess that the correct answer is C for all? If so, you have already figured out that all of these terms are marketing ploys created by large industrial producers to make you feel good about buying eggs. Likewise for “All Natural” (which means nothing), “Hormone Free” (the use of growth hormones in the poultry industry was outlawed decades ago), and “Antibiotic Free” (also rarely used in the egg industry). “Cage-free” and “Free-range” eggs may sound good, but chances are the hens who laid those eggs live in an environment that is most likely to harbor Salmonella: crowded aviaries housing thousands of birds sitting in a heck of a lot of chicken poop.

So what words would you like to see on an egg carton? “Pasture-raised” indicates

hens who live most of their lives outdoors and are able to forage for a more natural diet of worms, insects and grass, along with their feed. “Organic” means producers are subject to USDA regulation, must raise chickens to be at least free-range, and be fed only organic feed (without pesticides and not GMO, or from genetically modified organisms). It’s good to see the labels “Certified Humane,” “Animal Welfare Approved,” and “American Humane Certified,” as these producers must adhere to a robust set of animal welfare guidelines. Local eggs may be labeled ungraded and that’s just fine — none of our small-scale egg farmers have the equipment needed to grade eggs by USDA standards.

The most nutritious, safest and delicious eggs, in my opinion, come from local farmers (or friends) who raise small broods of truly pastured chickens. In Teton County, farmers are allowed to sell eggs directly to consumers at farmers markets, through farm share programs, and directly from their farms. Unfortunately, there are only so many of these high quality eggs to go around. Most of the year we still rely on supermarket eggs — 95 percent of which are likely from large-scale industrial aviaries — so it’s good to know how to read between the lines on an egg carton.

Price is a reliable indicator of quality when it comes to eggs. Industrial farms are designed to produce lots of cheap eggs — some sell for less than $2 a dozen. At that price you can almost guarantee the hens are in such close quarters they are pecking each other to death. Organic and pastured eggs will definitely cost more. The most expensive eggs are the local eggs, but even at $8 a dozen, I’d still choose them whenever they are available.

Why do local eggs cost so much? The actual egg carton is a huge expense — The Hole Egg cartons cost $1.50 each. (Please keep them as clean as possible and return to Anders Rae when you buy eggs.) And then there’s the feed. Most local egg farmers use feed free of soy, canola and corn, thus avoiding the top three GMO crops in our food system. Due to the high price of organic feed, it costs about 45 cents to produce one egg, and that’s just for feed, not including the cost of the labor, the facilities and the hens. But by spending a few extra dimes per egg, I get to support organically fed, humanely treated chickens and a local farmer who is probably not making much money on his or her chicken and egg business. If I buy my eggs at the Farmers Market on the Town Square, 10 percent is donated back to that week’s featured nonprofit. And I get a better egg — an egg with a rich, marigold yolk I can cook up as runny as I like.

How to find good eggs:

Track down Anders Rae of The Hole Egg at the Jackson Hole Farmers Market on the Town Square or at www.theholeegg.com. Go early — he always sells out.

Sign up for “Which Came First,” a chicken and egg share from Purely By Chance biodynamic farm, and get a whole chicken (butchered and ready to roast) and a dozen eggs each week. Contact Andy Heffron at the Jackson Hole Farmers Market on the Town Square, the People’s Market, or at [email protected].

Get Generation Farms eggs at the Jackson Hole Farmers Market, the People’s Market, and directly from farmer Matt Furney at [email protected] When the market season is over, you’ll find his eggs at Liquor Down South in Jackson, at Barrels and Bins in Driggs, and at Hole Food Rescue (where $1 from each dozen will get donated back to them). To taste chef renditions of Generation Farms eggs — Trout Stock Egg Drop Soup anyone? Don’t miss the nine-course farm to table Generations Farms dinner at Jackson Hole Winery on September 19 and 20. Tickets can be purchased at the Generation Farms booth at the farmers markets or by emailing Furney.

Debbie at KnitTogether Kinders Farm will be delivering eggs to Jackson on Wednesdays once the markets are over. Message her on Facebook or email her at [email protected]. She is hoping her ducks will start laying eggs soon too.

A few more of my favorite eggs come from the farmers at Cosmic Apple Gardens and Robinson Family Farms. Contact them to buy eggs directly from the farm.

Kale Poached Eggs

Serves 1, easily doubled

Place a large frying pan over medium heat and swirl the bottom with olive oil. When hot, add ¼ cup finely diced onion and a pinch of salt. When the onion is transparent, add 2 handfuls of kale, cleaned, dried and shredded. Sauté for 2 minutes until limp. Add 1 ripe, chopped tomato and warm through. Using a spoon, make 2 wells in the vegetables large enough to poach an egg. Crack an egg into each well and cook until done to your liking (cover the pan with a lid of you like the yolk cooked through). Season with salt, pepper and hot sauce, and serve with toasted bread. PJH

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About Annie Fenn, MD

After delivering babies and practicing gynecology for 20 years in Jackson, Annie traded her life as a doctor to pursue her other passion: writing about food, health, sustainability and the local food scene. Follow her snippets of mountain life, with recipes, at www.jacksonholefoodie.com and on Instagram @jacksonholefoodie.

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