Unscrambling an egg carton: What are you paying for?

COLUMBIA (WIS) - From organic, to cage-free, Omega-3 to all natural, a carton of eggs can have many names and many different price tags.

A recent Consumer Reports ShopSmart Magazine article asked the question "Are organic eggs worth the price?" The article says according to environmental experts the answer is yes, because "the way organic eggs are produced is much healthier for the hens."

However, South Carolina poultry experts say not so fast. Dr. Julie Helm, the poultry specialist veterinarian at Clemson Livestock Poultry Health says that the expense of organic eggs has less to do with health and more to do with the lifestyle of organically raised hens.

"The reason why organic eggs are more expensive is because the way they are raised costs more money to raise those chickens who lay the eggs," said Dr. Helm.

As of mid-April, the price for a dozen organic eggs at a local Midlands' grocery store was $5.19, while a dozen conventional eggs were priced at $1.99.

Dr. Helms said the USDA Organic Certification requirements contribute to the high cost of organic eggs. "The feed or the pasture land has to be certified as organic, they have to have some access to the outdoors, [and] they're not allowed to use antibiotics at anytime even if there is a disease issue," said Dr. Helm, speaking to just a few of the criteria.

Dr. Helm said that because organic farms are not able to use antibiotics to treat sick hens, they often have a higher mortality rate than conventional farms. She said because of that the statement in the article that the way organic eggs are produced are 'much healthier' for the hens is debatable.

"If you're using the term healthier as disease free or limited risk of disease, they are [actually] at a higher risk anytime birds are outside to pick up more diseases than birds who are raised inside of any type of housing," said Dr. Helm.

Hen housing and medical treatment aside, the Consumer Reports article argued that the feed given to organic hens is "made without synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides and fertilizers' so the residue won't show up in the eggs."

However, Dr. Helm argued that statement is "saying something that is obvious," she said there are no harmful residues in conventionally produced eggs either.

"The whole idea is that you're making this product, whether it's grown organically or conventionally, and you don't want any residues that are going to make your consumer sick," said Dr. Helm.

Dr. Helm said she's not sure what the article meant by the 'term' healthier, but believes the differences in egg offerings really comes down to lifestyle. "If somebody wants to buy eggs that are produced by chickens who have an organic lifestyle, there is a market for them to buy those eggs," she said.

Dr. Helm and State Veterinarian Dr. Boyd Parr said ultimately their job is not to advocate for one egg over another, but to educate the public on the differences.

"The inspected eggs that are for sale are safe and nutritious," said Dr. Parr. "You can make a personal choice based on what your convictions and taste are, and it's nice to have those options."

The article also stated there is no nutritional difference between organic and conventional eggs which state poultry experts confirm.

As you'll notice at any grocery store, there can be several different labels on egg cartons. For instance state poultry experts say eggs that advertise Omega-3 in the product mean that Omega-3 has been added to the feed of the hens.

Animal Welfare Certified labels deal specifically with how the hens are treated, according to state poultry experts. And if you see "no hormones added" on an egg carton, poultry experts say don't be misled. They add that all eggs are required by the USDA to be produced hormone free.

Finally, when it comes to taste, poultry experts say the best tasting egg is an age-old debate. They say it ultimately comes down to a personal taste preference.

Copyright 2012 WIS. All rights reserved.