Recently I was a guest host for the “Cooking with Ryan Scott” show on KGO radio, and one of the topics I covered was the difference between pasture-raised eggs and what I call “faux free-range eggs.” Supermarket buzzwords like “free range” and “cage free” mean virtually nothing — 97 percent of America’s eggs come from chickens kept in battery cages, where they are unable to stand up or turn around, must defecate on the chickens in the cages below them, and have their beaks burned off to prevent them from pecking other chickens to death as a result of their incredibly stressful existence (I can’t even call it a life).
Cage-free chickens are still confined indoors their entire lives but are at least able to flap their wings and walk around a bit — this could simply mean only one bird is kept in an enclosure versus six. And if the carton doesn’t say, “vegetarian fed,” their diet consists of ground-up chicken and other animal parts just like battery-caged hens.
Free-range birds must have access to the great outdoors, but there is no requirement that they actually go — and because chickens need a lot of room to roam (and that’s not cheap), most egg producers use a variety of tactics to discourage them from ever leaving the not-so-great indoors.
The only eggs that truly are cage free and free range come from pasture-raised chickens allowed to roam freely, eating a natural diet of grass and bugs (hence the beautiful, bright orange yolks) supplemented by vegetarian feed. One of our favorite brands is Red Hill Farms Pasture Raised Organic Rainbow Eggs (available at Mollie Stone’s and Whole Foods). Red Hill is a fourth-generation family farm in Marin, and their eggs, hand gathered every morning, come in beautiful shades of pale blue, green and pinkish-brown. No two eggs are alike (if the eggs in your fridge are identical in size and shape, they’re from battery cages). The eggs are very nutritious and have a fresh, grassy flavor that can’t be beat. As I said, keeping chickens in an open pasture isn’t cheap, so you’ll pay be-tween $8 and $9 a dozen. But when you consider that most supermarket faux free-range eggs average around $5, it’s just a matter of skipping one latte a week. Not only is it the humane thing to do, it’s also better for your health: Pastured eggs contain less fat and cholesterol and are up to 50 percent less likely to be contaminated with salmonella than factory farmed eggs.