- Conventional (i.e., no special label) - Typically less than half a square foot of space per hen, giving not even enough room to spread their wings. These chickens do not ever see the light of day, eat a blade of grass and are fed the cheapest food. The lack of nutrition in their diet has prompted the egg producers to add ingredients to their feed that will color the egg yolk to a darker yellow/orange. If they did not do this, the yolks would be very very light yellow, closer to clear.
- Cage Free - Just as it says..., the hens are able to move about inside a barn without being confined to cages. They can also be fed the same as the conventional chicken above!
- Free Range - "Implies" chickens feed on lush green pastures. Actually, it is not a regulated term for eggs so this can be used by absolutely anyone. Really all that’s needed is a door to the outside that gives the chickens “access” to an outdoor area, whether they actually use it or not. This is a meaningless term.
- Organic - This means the hens were fed organic feed, (grown without commercial fertilizers or pesticides), and not given hormones or antibiotics or fed animal byproducts. Federal regulations state that they must have access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment.
- Vegetarian - The hen is fed a vegetarian feed (not fed animal by-products which is offensive to some people). Chickens need protein in their diet and they are naturally omnivores, not vegetarians, and will naturally eat bugs, grubs, etc. This term is used to imply “healthier” in our anti-meat culture.
- Pastured - This is the one most people ‘think’ the above mean - Pastured means the chickens were raised on pasture, with access to the sun, grass, bugs, and possibly supplemented with grains and other feed. Chickens are very social animals. Pastured chickens get the opportunity to run around, dust bathe, socialize, spread their wings, scratch in the dirt for bugs and worms, eat grass, weeds, bits of dirt (which they need and is natural for them).
How can you be sure you are getting what you really want? Consider raising a few chickens of your own. You might be surprised how many people are doing it. I personally have three that I raised from chicks (photos below). I have a family of four (on most days – I have step children on the weekends), and I get approximately 18 eggs per week from my ‘girls’ – that is plenty for us (I actually have to give many away). I KNOW what they eat (grass, weeds, bugs, grains, sprouted wheat, and occasional leftovers – they will eat anything – one of mine actually caught a little lizard and gobbled it right up – this is all part of their natural diet) I also know where they live – they have a coop, but get free run of my backyard most of the time. I have NEVER seen nor eaten eggs that were as rich in flavor and color. There are many websites that support this growing trend. Check out http://www.backyardchickens.com/. This is a fun site with photos of coops, tips, lots of information and photos.
I'd like to hear from those of you who have raised a few (or want to) and what your experience is with the difference in quality of the eggs.