20 July 2016

RESEARCH - Does Free Range Mean Better Eggs?

They can be twice the price and less mainstream in the marketplace but there is mounting evidence eggs laid by free-range chickens may taste better and also be better for your health.

A CBC Marketplace investigation into the industry found not only is opting for free-range, small-flock or organic eggs, more responsible in terms of animal welfare but can also impact vitamin and fat content.

"You are what you eat. and that applies to the hen as well," says Harry Pelissero, general manager of Egg Farmers of Ontario.

Canadians spend more than $2 billion on eggs a year with the bulk of eggs produced by chickens in conventional battery cage farms where six to eight hens live in each small cage.

The remaining, approximate, ten percent come from “ethical” farming operations which include free-run, free-range and even “hens on pasture.”

The latter has become an increasingly common go-to option for the grocery shopper.

Marketplace sent samples of six brands of eggs from a variety of farming methods to a certified lab for nutritional analysis.

Samples from Burnbrae and Gray Ridge, two of Canada's leading egg producers, whose hens are raised in battery cages were submitted as were ones from four cage-free brands including Organic Meadow and Small Flock's Delight, the latter of which is operated by Mennonite farmers in Ontario.

While all the samples met or surpassed nutrients listed on the carton for calories, protein, fat and iron – Vitamin A, E, D and omega-e fatty acid content varied substantially.

Organic Meadow eggs was the leader on that front boasting a higher nutritional value with its product containing more than twice the amount of vitamin D than other brands as well as the highest vitamin E levels.

Small Flock's Delight also had higher levels of vitamin A and vitamin D than the conventional brands.

Living conditions – ranging from sunshine and the inclusion of grass and insects in the hens' diet instead of the more mainstream corn-based diet - play a role in the eggs' health benefits, says Christty Brissette, a dietitian at Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, who analyzed the test results for Marketplace.

"I would expect some variation based on what the hens are fed," Brissette says.

The Marketplace findings back up those made in prior studies looking at how farming methods affect nutrition, including a Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences study which demonstrates eggs from hens permitted to feed in pastures have superior nutrients including fat-soluble vitamins and omega-3 fatty acids.

Pennsylvania State University found eggs from pasture-raised hens had 2 and a half times more omega-3s and double the vitamin E than those coming from conventional operations, according to findings shared on prevention.com.

But buying into the benefits isn't cheap.

Conventional eggs can cost about $3.69 a dozen while eggs from hens raised on pasture can be more than twice that price.

In February, the Egg Farmers of Canada announced a shift from conventional egg production towards one which takes hen welfare, human health and environmental impact into consideration.

The association representing more than 1,000 egg farms claim part of the motivation behind the transition is “changing consumer preferences.”

Currently, about 90 percent of egg production is conventional housing while the remainder are free-run.

The goal is to see all production be in alternative housing by 2036 - a time-frame slammed by some animal welfare advocates as too lengthy and unacceptable given animal suffering.

While eggs from free-range farms have been increasingly popular with consumers, some don't buy they are the better egg.

Research done at the University of Bristol found although free-range farms can potentially offer birds a better quality of life than caged counterparts, many had poor living standards in the United Kingdom.

“Caged hens are more comfortable than people think and have higher welfare as standard than free-range hens,” Prof. Christine Nicol told the Daily Mail.

“It would be nice to think the current free-range system gave the birds the best welfare, but the problem is that the management of free-range systems in the UK is so variable. Although you get some brilliant farms, you get some that are really not good.”

By Nadia Moharib
Nadia Moharib is an animal lover who has adopted everything from birds to hamsters, salamanders, rabbits, fish and felines. She has written about all-things-pets for years and was a long-time editor of a pet magazine in a daily newspaper which featured a Q & A column, Ask Whit, penned by her pooch (ghost written, of course.) The serial dog owner lives in Calgary, Alberta and most days can be found at a dog park picking up after her rescue pooch, Scoots.

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