Feasting is our column dedicated to cooking, grilling, eating and discovering what’s on the menu across America and the world.
Shopping for sustainable food isn’t easy. It seems there are an endless number of factors to consider, from the ingredients list to finding a certification stamp that actually means something (not all organic certifications are created equal). Looking at these labels is especially important for certain types of fruits, vegetables and most definitely meat and fish if you want to get the absolute best quality food on the market. But one of the most confusing things to shop for is eggs.
The terms “free-range” and “cage-free” have become so widely used, they barely mean anything. For example, a cage-free chicken might still be crowded in a barn with hundreds of others, and one that’s free-range may only have about two square feet to roam outdoors. And even with those words printed on the crate, you have to watch out for chickens that are fed an all-corn or soy diet, given antibiotics and confined to spaces with little or no sunlight whatsoever.
Truly the best eggs you can buy are pasture-raised because the chickens are able to roam the outdoors as they please where they get plenty of sunlight and graze on whatever nature has to offer. To learn more about why pasture-raising is so important, we caught up with Aurora Porter of Vital Farms, a network of family farms from Georgia to California that raises chickens to the highest Certified Humane® standards and produce some of the most delicious tasting eggs we’ve ever had.
Shopping for eggs can be very confusing. Between labels that say cage-free, free-range, organic etc., it’s difficult to know exactly what you’re buying. All of Vital Farms’ eggs are pasture-raised. Could you speak to what exactly this means and how it compares to eggs with those other descriptors?
From a label standpoint, pasture-raised is different simply because it accurately describes how the hens are raised. There are some technicalities – the precise amount of space, the pasture rotation – but in very general terms, it is what it sounds like. Our girls have year round access to spacious pastures where they get to spend their days foraging, socializing and just being chickens on healthy, green, organic pastures with fresh air and sunlight.
By comparison, cage-free and free-range birds rarely, if ever, go outside, eat only feed (no grass or bugs) and have very little room to move indoors. So while they may not be confined to a tiny cage for their entire lives, the misleading impression the terms give is very much at odds with the reality of how they are raised.
In addition, we follow the Certified Humane® standard for pasture-raising, a standard we were actually quite involved in defining. The number we often cite, 108sqft of pasture for every bird, comes from European soil studies that confirmed what we have long suspected. A happy hen can eat through about 20sqft of pasture in a week or so, and that pasture needs around 5 weeks to naturally recover. So we calculated that our optimum flock density is 1000 birds to 2.5 acres, which works out to 108sqft per bird. Given the importance of grass and all the other goodies our girls find out in the fields, you get both the wellbeing of the hens and the nutritional and taste difference with our eggs. Keeping the pastures healthy is an essential component of raising hens this way and marks pasture-raising as distinct from every other system.
“I did not raise laying hens before Vital farms. But I have been a farmer my entire life, primarily a dairy farmer. Vital Farms had many of the same farming beliefs as I do, such as animal welfare values and producing the best product for the consumer. So naturally, we were a good fit.” -Farmer Jessica McIsaac, Two Rock Natural Pastures, part of the Vital Farms network.
How does Vital Farms ensure their farmers are raising chickens to their high standards?
We employ an internal, dedicated Quality Control team that recruits, vets and monitors our farmers on a regular basis. We also host farmer workshops and dinners regionally to promote a spirit of support and community. Third party groups such as Certified Humane® and the USDA also perform unannounced, comprehensive audit visits to our farms and processing facilities a few times a year.
Could you speak to some of the health benefits of eating pastured eggs? Do people notice a big difference in taste as well?
Absolutely! We get emails every day from folks telling us how much better our eggs taste and how much they appreciate what we do from both a welfare standpoint and just outright quality. There have been a few studies that have completed detailed analysis to measure the impact a pastured diet has on the nutritional quality of eggs, but the highlights are:
• 50 percent more folic acid and 70 percent more vitamin B12 than eggs from factory farm hens
• Higher omega-3s (up to 13 times in some studies)
• 10 percent less fat, 34 percent less cholesterol and 40 percent more vitamin A
• 50 percent more vitamin E and seven times more beta-carotene
A significant part of the hens’ diet comes from the pastures, which are always treated organically regardless of supplemental feed the flock is provided with (it’s this feed that determines the designation of the flock). All pasture-raised eggs benefit from a varied and more nutritionally balanced diet. This means there is a measurable difference between pasture-raised and all other eggs types, a difference that’ s mirrored in the superior taste and appearance most people recognize.
We know how much your customers matter to you, so what are some ways Vital Farms has been able to give back to them?
We pride ourselves in providing the best tasting, most nutritious eggs with the highest animal welfare standards in the country. We also promote transparency in our farming methods and business practices and have ongoing conversations through social media, as well as with customers who reach out to us via phone and online. One of the key initiatives we’ve focused on in the past few years is just becoming more available to more customers all over the country. We started out in stores like Whole Foods and small coops, and now we are able to reach even more diverse demographics in stores like Kroger, Target and Safeway across the country. Pasture-raised eggs are not just for people willing to pay $9/dozen at a high-end organic grocery store or farmers market; pasture-raised eggs should be available at every grocery store, period.
To learn more about Vital Farms, visit them at vitalfarms.com