here's the thing about eggs. i've been obsessing over the past few weeks. my main goal is to purchase eggs from humanely-raised chickens. i would like these eggs to be organic. in my mind, humanely raised is pretty much what we've got going on in our backyard--the hens run around at their leisure, give themselves dust baths, peck for bugs, have 27/7 access to food & water. they are generally not cooped against their will. but these chickens are not eating 100% organic feed. so technically, their eggs are not organic. and we're only getting 1 egg a day at this point--certainly not enough to keep up with our breakfasts.
besides getting new chickens who will have a greater output, here are my other options as i see them:
get eggs at the mainstream grocery store. okay, this is not really an option. we call these "guilt eggs" in our house--photos of chickens in battery cages are enough to steer me off of this course for good.
get eggs at trader joes or other upscale grocery store. every magazine article i've ever read on the subject of humanely raised eggs states that terms like "cage-free," "humanely-raised" and "free-range" are unregulated. therefore, these terms mean very little. read on to see why.
get the eggs at my local farmer's market (or any farmer's market in the area, most likely). here, egg containers sport all of the jargon i'm looking for--just like at the fancier supermarkets and trader joe's. it sounds so good--i've got visions in my head of happy chickens clucking all around some farm somewhere, out in the open, laying eggs in little nesting boxes filled with fresh straw....
then i actually ask the vendor about how the chickens are raised. and it's a whole 'nother story. these chickens don't have access to the outdoors. they don't live in cages, but they do spend their entire lives inside, surrounded by thousands of other birds. because this close proximity is stressful, the chickens are de-beaked in order to keep them from pecking each other to death. the egg guy told me that de-beaking is no big deal--and better than "going out every day to count the dead birds." when i told him that my chickens don't peck at each other (much) he informed me that they probably do, it just happens when i'm not looking. i assured him that my chickens couldn't be bothered with the pecking that arises from frustration and stress--they're too busy rooting through my flowerbeds. they're happy chickens. and they have all their feathers, which is (i think) a sure sign that pecking is kept at a minimum.
anyway, he continued to inform me that they don't take the WHOLE beak off, just part of it. so that the chicken can still, you know, eat. he equated it to cutting a fingernail--well, a bit of googling proves that train of thought wrong. there'd be no need to chop & cauterize simultaneously if beaks were like fingernails, as fingernails don't bleed.
the egg guy told me that if i were raising factory chickens, i would de-beak too. that it was better than the alternative. well, maybe that's the case. but i wouldn't raise factory chickens. that's the whole point--why am i still supporting them with my food dollars?
my other option is to buy eggs from pasture-raised hens. birds treated similarity to my own, differences stemming only from the fact that they are raised in larger flocks. unfortunately, these eggs sell for $7-$8/dozen. which is an expense that i just can't justify on a regular basis (we go through about 2 dozen eggs per week, give or take a few).
by the way, the egg guy told me that eggs from pasture-raised hens, though beautiful in color and flavor, are more susceptible to salmonella contamination, since the chickens are feeding off of the same land where rats and mice can live. don't know if there's truth to this or not--he actually seemed pretty forthcoming about his own hen-raising practices, so it's not like i can write him off completely.
jeremy and i have thinking to do. right now we're close to shoving the whole debate aside and adding some new chickens back into our flock. raising hens is fun and all, but it is a definite added responsibility as well. if getting new girls weren't an option, however, i have to say that the egg guy's eggs seem like the most reasonable alternative, even though it doesn't seem the chickens are treated all that humanely--i'd have to ask him more about how the chickens are culled and at what age. i'm sure these questions have answers that i don't want to hear.
the final alternative is to cut back on our egg consumption. just like everything else--eating less of something that's better and appreciating it more.