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What Do Ethics Have to Do with the Price of Eggs?

What is the difference between cage-free and free-range eggs? And are they or other specialty eggs worth their higher prices?

By Jennie L. Phipps

Inflation worries everyone, but no aspect of it has caused as much consternation as skyrocketing egg prices.

Several varieties of eggs on a supermarket shelf. Next Avenue
What's love (or ethics) got to do with the price of eggs? A lot, as it turns out.   |  Credit: Getty

Some egg prices have gone back down since peaking at the start of the year. Discount supermarkets are routinely selling a dozen white eggs for less than $2. But sharing shelf space are cartons of eggs that can cost as much as $10 a dozen — a budget-busting phenomenon.

These eggs claim to be "cage-free," "free-roaming," "pasteurized," "organic" and "natural." At least one company calls its eggs "happy."

Are 'Happy' Eggs Worth the Price?

Is it worth paying twice, three times, even four times as much for an egg that has a healthy-sounding label?

Some say, yes.

"Conventionally raised white eggs are unbelievably cruel to the poor hens."

"Conventionally raised white eggs are unbelievably cruel to the poor hens who sit in one spot in a cage where they can't move and turn out eggs for all their lives," says Holly Gunsher, who is retired from an automotive engineering company and lives in Punta Gorda, Florida.

"These hens' feet become entangled in the wire cages. It's a horror. I buy free-range eggs, which are brown and cost a little more. But these hens have a decent life and knowing that, I enjoy my eggs much more," she says.

But are boutique eggs healthier?

Nutritionally, the answer is, "no," says Kenneth E. Anderson, professor of poultry science and director of the layer performance and management program at North Carolina State University. "Provided that a hen is fed the same nutrients, you end up with an egg that is nutritionally equivalent to any other egg."

What the Labels Really Mean

Labeling an egg organic makes it appealing to many customers. In order for eggs to be labeled "organic," they must be given feeds from certified organic production facilities that do not use pesticides, insecticides or any other chemicals.

"That makes the feed ingredients four times as expensive as regular corn or regular soybean meal," Anderson says. "So, when they're fed to a chicken, the eggs are going to be about four times more expensive. That's where you get $8 a dozen for an organic egg."

But are these eggs more nutritious? Anderson says no.

What about "nutritionally enhanced," which often means omega-3 fatty acids are added to the chicken feed? Darrin M. Karcher, associate professor of poultry science at Purdue University, dismisses the value of this. He says that taking one omega-3 supplement tablet provides as much benefit as eating a dozen omega-3-enhanced eggs.

Karcher is a father of five. "It's very hard for me to consider spending an additional dollar or more for an egg that I know nutritionally is not different from the cheaper egg," he says.

Deciphering Common Egg Terms

While egg descriptions sound official and legal, often they are written by marketing departments or organizations supporting animal rights. Here's what you are really paying for when you buy eggs with these common descriptions.

  • Brown eggs. "If it's a white bird, it lays white eggs. If it's a brown bird, it lays brown eggs," Anderson says. Brown and white eggs are nutritionally identical.
  • Cage-Free. Hens aren't kept in cages, but they are indoors, often in crowded conditions.
  • Free-Range. These hens aren't kept in cages and have a varying amount of room to run. If the carton has a "Certified Humane" or "American Humane Certified" label, birds have a relatively spacious outdoor run.
  • Natural. All eggs are natural — except plastic Easter eggs — so this descriptor is meaningless.
  • Hormone-Free. By U.S. law, all hens used for eggs or meat cannot be given hormones, so "hormone-free" doesn't make these eggs unique.
  • Pasture-Raised. This label is not regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit organization, coined the term, which is now used by similar animal-rights organizations. Not all organizations define the term in the same way.

What About Luscious Bright Yolks?

Some buyers find richly colored yolks more appealing than lighter colored ones. Yolks are graded by egg producers. The national yolk color average is a color score of seven-and-a-half to eight — a middle-range yellow, Anderson explains.

"If the producer feeds their birds something with a lot of pigment in it, like alfalfa meal, then the yolks will be darker — more of an orange-ish yellow color, around an 11 or 12 yolk-color score. But nutritionally, they're all equal," he says.


Why Are Specialty Eggs More Expensive?

Free-range and cage-free conditions affect the cost of the eggs. "Those birds are fed exactly the same feed as a conventionally produced egg. The difference is they eat more of it," Anderson says.

The exercise and need to adapt to changing temperatures makes the hens hungrier, he says. "The birds run around, and they don't have as much control over their physical environment. When it's cold outside, the chickens are cool. When it's warm outside, the chickens are warm."

"Those birds are fed exactly the same feed as a conventionally produced egg. The difference is they eat more of it."

Cage-free hens also lay their eggs in places where they aren't supposed to. "Because of the birds' interaction with the environment, there are more cracked eggs and there are more dirty eggs," says Anderson. "Big buyers like Costco and Walmart don't want eggs that have been laid on the floor. These eggs have to go through a pasteurization process, and they are sold at a discount to restaurants, hospitals, food services, hotels, or they're dried and used in cake mixes and whatever."

Derrin calls for more study of the cage-free egg-producing process. He says there hasn't been much consideration of the safety of eggs that are laid in the litter areas on top of manure and urine.

"We don't know how much bacteria may have penetrated into that egg from being on the litter or in the litter in a cage-free environment," he says. "We must continue to do research about what the outcomes could potentially be so that decisions can be made that have some science behind them."

Consumers Rule the Egg World

As more consumers worry about the lifestyles of the caged hen, more retailers, such as Walmart, have grown more concerned about the issue, too. In 2015, the company pledged to sell only cage-free eggs by 2025. So far, only 21% of its egg inventory is cage-free. Earlier this year, the company restated its pledge for a cage-free egg supply chain and apologized to stockholders and customers for not yet reaching its goals.

Not all of its customers are offended. Sally Jennelle grew up on a farm in West Virginia, near Pearisburg, Virginia, where she lives now. When she was 12, she took over daily feeding of the 150 chickens her family raised annually. Those hens lived in a chicken house and roamed a fenced area. They were New Hampshire Reds and produced brown eggs.

Sixty-seven years later, Jennelle isn't especially worried about chicken well-being. Today, she buys white eggs because she thinks their shells don't hide dirt as readily as brown eggs. She pays as little as she can — no more than $2.99 for the house brand at Walmart or Food Lion.

"I'm not going to pay any more than that for anything that comes out of a chicken's butt," she says.

Jennie L. Phipps writes about retirement, Medicare, insurance, real estate and Social Security. Read More
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