Thursday, July 7, 2011


With heightened awareness about food safety and health protection, consumers are invariably in a dilemma as to which products they should be buying and which ones they should be shunning. This is true with almost all foods on the retail shelves in the market. Take the case of eggs which are offered in many formats, at least in developed countries making the consumers totally confused. It is relatively easy in many developing countries where grading and certification are exception rather than rule. In recent years eggs offered in supermarkets come with different claims which most consumers do not understand. These claims on the cartons decide the prices one has to pay and hence a thorough understanding of the implications of such claims can equip the buyer to decide on the option. One must ask the question whether paying more money for a particular product is worth the money spent on it and here is where knowledge about the significance of the claims help to zero in on the most desirable type of egg. Terms used by the poultry industry like "free range", "cage free", "omega-3", "vegetarian" etc are stamped on the labels and they may make no sense to an ordinary consumer.

When the carton says it contains free range eggs many consumers may entertain images of a happy, healthy chicken roaming freely on a grassy hillside. Is it true?Not necessarily! Such claims do not assure that the hen was actually able to roam around outdoors. Generally as per law free-range conditions apply to only birds that are sold for their meat, not for egg-laying chickens. Even here it only means that the birds need to have access to the outdoors which can be fulfilled by providing a door in the side of the farm! Whether the chicken ever passes through it or not is irrelevant to the law which is equally vague as to whether the door leads to a concrete slab or actual grass or dirt!. Where does that leave the consumer? To no where! What does it mean when "cage free" adjective is used in the egg carton? It simply means that the hens are not confined to a cage but no one guarantees that these birds have real freedom to roam a farm and eat a varied diet, which is vital to the nutrients in the egg. The size of their space varies greatly from farm to farm. Some chickens have no more room than a small pet carrier! Almost all cage-free hens are still kept indoors and often, it's in a cramped barn.

One of the claimed benefits of cage-free and free-range bird is that the chickens will be healthier. Naturally when the birds are confined to the indoors, without access to natural light and the ability to stretch their legs, they are more vulnerable to sickness that calls for use of antibiotics frequently. Those that roam freely live more naturally in the outdoors and may not require extensive use of antibiotics which may find access to the eggs. There are interesting anecdotes that describe how tasty the traditionally raised country chickens can be compared to industrially produced chicken meat and eggs.

There are other versions of eggs such as "organic" which merely means that the bird was fed pesticide-free food and wasn't given hormones or antibiotics to help spur their growth and production. World is not unanimous in the view regarding the effects (if any) of using these hormones and pesticides have on the consumers in short term as well as long term. Many believe that these unnatural substances are undesirable and harmful causing cancers. Probably consumers are better off with organic eggs though they may have to pay extra such eggs, till better clarity emerges on this issue.. Omega-3 eggs are produced by hens raised on feeds containing high amounts of these types of fats considered heart-healthy. Such eggs are expected to contain two to three times the amount of omega 3s as compared to a regular egg and can be ideal for those who are averse to consuming fish like Salmon. There is this interesting version of a vegetarian egg which comes from hens fed on plant based feeds, suitable for ovo-vegetarians shunning dairy based foods. Hens with dark feathers produce brown eggs which are deceptively sold as more nutritious food which is not true. As these breeds eat more feed than chickens that lay white eggs, brown eggs invariably cost more to the consumer with no real advantage. It has to be kept in mind that an egg's taste and nutrition levels are most importantly influenced by feed composition which can be easily manipulated to give desired types of eggs.


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