Mystified in the egg aisle

The other day my wife sent me to the supermarket to buy some eggs.  You should try this yourself: go into the supermarket to buy just one semi-generic item (eggs, milk, orange juice) and you too might be paralyzed by the overabundance of choice.  (and no, the USDA Egg Buying Guide doesn’t help)

I had the option of buying a dozen eggs for $1.99, $2.99, $3.99, and $4.99.  Organic, cage free, no antibiotics, vegetarian feed…or just plain old-fashion industrial-supply eggs.  A 250% price differential between the least and most expensive option, and lots of claims on the packaging and pictures of farms I’m pretty sure don’t exist any more in the U.S.

I consider myself reasonably informed about food and I care a lot about getting good, healthy food for me and my family.  I know a least a little about industrial food production and how terrible it is, and I worry appropriately about antibiotics and growth hormones and conditions for livestock.  I’ve even read Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (both worth reading).

But what I know still isn’t much use in the egg isle.  I’m pretty sure that the “all natural,” “organic,” “free range” and “cage free” labels have enough marketing lies to be untrustworthy.  And I feel like a fool simply buying the most expensive option and assuming that it’s somehow the most natural and the best.

It strikes me that this matters because there’s an accepted wisdom that consumer’s decisions – and a growing preference for “greener” and more socially responsible products – will lead companies to behave more responsibly.  The egg-buying conundrum exposes the fallacy: while I’m relatively informed about egg production, I still don’t know enough to differentiate at the product level, and since all marketers are liars, I can’t rely on the information on the packet to make informed decisions.

There’s been a recent upsurge in demand for “better” products – organic food sales skyrocketed from $1B to $20B from 2000 to 2007 – but this doesn’t mean that companies don’t still have a ton of wiggle room.  Consumers just cannot know enough at the margin, which means that outside of egregious corporate behavior, companies that want to do the minimum can and will get by.

Put another way, change is going to come from personal leadership from within companies, with outside consumer pressure providing a general direction but never really being enough to separate the wheat from the chaff.

P.S. Any advice on the egg question is welcome

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5 Responses to Mystified in the egg aisle

  1. bunkywu says:

    On eggs: I’m no expert and I’m sure someone will find issue with my approach. But, in the absence of a green/farmers market near your home, I’d suggest:

    1) researching the farm/brand – you’ll be able to quickly tell what’s real and what’s not.

    2) let the product speak for itself – the more orange the yolks (vs. pale yellow), the better. typically signals a natural healthy diet of insects which tends to only happen when chix are free to roam far and wide. you should also be able to taste the difference in a big way.

    3) all else being equal, pick the farm closest to you with the hope that the carbon footprint is less and the eggs more fresh.

  2. the founder of GoodGuide shared your dilemma:

    “One summer a few years ago, Dara O’Rourke was doing what he’d done dozens of times before: putting sunscreen on his five-year old daughter Minju before she went outside to play in the summer sun. The thought occurred to Dara, ‘I wonder what’s really in this stuff?’ So, being a Professor at the University of California-Berkeley, Dara researched the sunscreen. What he found was surprising and disturbing: the sunscreen he’d been putting on Minju for years had a toxic ingredient.”

    read the rest here: http://www.goodguide.com/about

    not sure if they cover brands of eggs, yet…but I think they’re headed in the right direction.

  3. Luke Harris says:

    Will, thanks for the tip on GoodGuide. Looks like a great resource.

    I have the same issue with buying Tuna Fish. Too many variables to choose between.

  4. Heather says:

    I’ve only recently started buying the cage free/veg fed eggs. One of the first things I noticed is that the shell is much thicker/harder to crack. I’d like to think that means the stuff inside the egg is also of higher quality. That’s why I made the switch, not because of any of the organic/natural/sustainable/etc angle. I also didn’t see the jump from around $1.89 to $3.49 a dozen as that great in the scheme of things.

  5. Kj says:

    Recent article in the times about food engineering that you might find interesting.

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/23/health/23well.html?em

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