That was my response in 1987 when a customer remarked that my eggs were too expensive; that supermarket eggs were less than a dollar a dozen, and that, after all, “eggs is eggs.” I marveled at the wisdom embedded in this homily, not for its truth, but for the comfort it provided the speaker when faced with a possible decision to pay more for something better.
The eggs I was offering at my stand were nest run. There were jumbo, large, extra large, medium and a few (but not many) small eggs in the same box. Some were even bluish tint because I always liked to keep a few Auricanas along with other breeds. They were from a 100-bird flock of chickens that roamed free nine months of the year in a quarter acre pen in an old apple orchard. The grasses and dandelions the birds ate kept the yolks a dark yellow and high in vitamin A. In the late summer the surpluses of the vegetable harvest gave the birds plenty to eat; like the rest of us, they seemed happiest when eating watermelon or cantaloupe. In the winter the hens were kept in the greenhouse, in which we would add about two feet of leaves in the fall. All winter the birds would shred and mix the leaves and their droppings as they scratched for the whole grain (locally grown wheat, barley & corn) I would scatter on the leaves. The winter days were a little warmer in the greenhouse, and the winter nights not quite so cold. The eggs at my stand cost $1.35 a dozen.
The eggs at the supermarket had pale yellow yolks, probably because USDA regs recommend this. The chickens that laid the eggs lived in so-called “battery houses”, with rows and corridors of cages stacked several high, each banana-box-sized cage with three birds in it. Depending on the size of the operation, between 20,000 and 100,000 birds are bought into these “layer houses” when they are 20 weeks old, as they are starting to lay “pullet” eggs. They remain in the cages until they are about a year old, or unless they die sooner (which quite a few do). As chicks they were de-beaked so they cannot do harm when they peck at each other in the overcrowded conditions, and light levels are kept low to keep fighting in the cages to a minimum. Nevertheless the most birds are picked clean of feathers by their cage-mates. They are fed a water and a mash which includes antibiotics to prevent them from dying in these unhealthful conditions. Workers who somehow tolerate the intensity of the racket and power of the stench walk the aisles daily to collect eggs. The manure is kept in pits until it can be spread on land for growing dairy corn and hay; during some months the fly problem is so bad that the birds are fed Larvadex, an insecticide that kills the larvae of flies trying to breed in the manure. These eggs cost 89¢ a dozen for extra large size.
The differences noted here, as well as dozens of more minute details in the differences between raising battery hens and free range hens cannot be reduced to any simple dichotomy. There is no one set of differences, no one yardstick whereby a fair comparison could be made between the human (and the humane!) implications of these two methods of egg-farming.
There are cultural and economic and agricultural and environmental and spiritual and social and psychological implications involved in each of these methods of egg-farming. In battery egg-farming animal husbandry has been reduced to how to keep the animal alive while the last dollar is extracted; in free range egg-farming animal husbandry means being aware of what makes the birds happy and healthy and giving it to them. In battery egg-farming economics means producing the egg with the absolute lowest point-of-purchase price by making sure all of the other egg-production costs of human and animal health, environmental and spiritual degradation, animal and human exploitation are externalized, that is are not paid at the point of purchase. Of course the same egg purchaser will have to pay taxes to cover the costs of environmental cleanup, human health and welfare, farm grain subsidies, and so on that are generated by this kind of farming. But the important point for the economics of this kind of battery egg-farming is that these costs are not paid for at the point-of-purchase, so it looks like the consumer is getting cheap food! Which, as any big-wig food retailer will tell you, is what all consumers want.
Who says “eggs is eggs”? I sure don’t.