What Sets Pasture-Raised Eggs Apart?
5 Minute Read
Published on Mar 01, 2023
Ethically sourced eggs & the effects of industrialization on resilience
Eggs have been a staple in our diets, in nearly every part of the world for over a millennia, as raising chickens as a means of subsistence off the land is one of the easiest ways to transform food scraps and plant waste into nutritious food. This relationship between chickens and their environment provides a well balanced and diverse diet that is responsible for the deeply orange yolks and exceptional flavor anyone who’s tried truly pasture-raised eggs raves about. A lot has changed since the industrialization of agriculture began and the time of the family flock ended.
Today, 56 companies produce 87% of the country’s egg supply, with each farm raising millions of hens in massive indoor facilities. Almost half of all the eggs produced in the country are on farms in only four states - Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. This consolidation of power and magnitude of scale in the egg industry leaves our food supply vulnerable to disruption, contamination, price fixing, and creates an environment where only the few largest producers survive. In exchange for the largest farms’ profits, we pay for it in the form of low quality food and environmental destruction.
Why shortages & high prices?
The egg industry throughout North America has been significantly disrupted recently, exposing the brittle state of our industrialized food economy. In the last year, the median cost of a dozen eggs has doubled and the country has faced shortages throughout all aspects of the poultry industry.
There are a variety of factors that have led to the recent outcomes we are experiencing in the egg industry today, and a consolidation of the industry makes us particularly vulnerable to them.
We are currently experiencing the largest outbreak of avian influenza since 2015, a highly contagious flu virus that spread to 21 states and caused over 50 million chickens to be depopulated in order to try and contain the outbreak. The influenza is spread to chickens by migratory birds that are carriers for the virus, but don’t show symptoms. When their infected feces makes its way into a poultry confinement house it spreads rapidly due to the massive concentration of animals in one space. When large flocks are culled it leaves major supply shortages across the country, which drive prices up.
Birds raised on pasture, however, are much less prone to getting the virus because they are much more spread out, have access to the open air, and exposure to sunlight denatures the virus.
Chickens are monogastric animals, and like us, require highly digestible food to extract energy and nutrients from it. Ruminants, like cattle and sheep on the other hand, are able to digest cellulose and lignin with the help of bacteria in their rumen, which allow them to digest grasses and other plants. Because of this, chickens and other monogastrics like pigs must have access to grain in order to sustain a healthy diet. Feed prices have risen an average of 23% in the last year, contributing significantly to the price increase of eggs. The largest factors that contribute to grain getting more and more expensive are petroleum prices - much of the chemicals and fertilizers used in row cropping are either very energy intensive to produce or are made out of petroleum products. Further, we have experienced extreme weather events across the midwest and southwest, causing crop failure where much of the country’s grain is grown.
How can you support a resilient food system & make sure you’re getting the highest quality eggs?
Whether you’re looking for the best tasting eggs or want to support farms that practice sustainable agriculture and the ethical treatment of livestock, navigating the claims and marketing slogans at the grocery store can be overwhelming and ultimately futile. Phrases such as “free range”, “natural”, “cage-free”, and more recently “regenerative”, and “pasture-raised” are all terms that companies can prescribe to their products without any verification or oversight. At worst, these claims don’t mean a thing, and at best they represent minor changes in a production system that don’t have any measurable effect on quality, sustainability, or the treatment of animals. That is why, given the lack of accountability in our food system, it is more important than ever to know your farmer.
At 99 Counties, our egg farmer is Finn’s Ranch, and we’d like you to get to know them. Sean and Alejandra Finn, both Chicago natives, founded Finn’s Ranch in 2012. They practice regenerative agriculture and raise pigs, chickens, cattle, and turkeys on their farm in Buchanan, Michigan. Their farm is founded on the principles of working with nature and utilizing and designing an agricultural ecosystem that reduces erosion, sequesters carbon, infiltrates rainfall, and seeks to eliminate inputs. The quality of their eggs are a direct result of their excellent work as land stewards and we’re proud to partner with them.