by Mike Sula
I love my neighborhood Cermak Produce; vast well-staffed meat counter, fresh produce, carnitas, Mexican Coke, and a long selection of pan-Latino goods. But early this summer I was startled to see a line of designer eggs produced by the Port Washington, Wisconsin, concern Egg Innovations, "the Cage Free Company." With Omega-3, Certified Organic, Cage Free, and Vegetarian varieties, they had slick packaging and Whole Foods pricing. For all I love it, Cermak isn't the sort of place that stocks products that tout their animal welfare street cred. My checkout girl was surprised too. "Do we sell these?" she asked when I lined up with my Omega-3s.
I didn't know much about the differences. The busy packaging wasn't much help and the company's Web site implies a lot of overlap. Cage free? Sounds good. But what about the Certified Organic Eggs ("if you are concerned about man made chemicals in your diet and animal welfare")? What's the difference between "cage free" and "free roaming," a lifestyle the organic chickens apparently enjoy? The Omega-3 eggs are bulked up with fatty acids, antioxidants, and Vitamin E, and so are the Vegetarian eggs. Yet the others are all brown, so why are the O-3s white? And what is a vegetarian egg anyway? Why can't they just create one Super Egg with all these admirable qualities?
"We identify major retailing trends," says Egg Innovations president John Brunnquell. "And we've identified four: nutrition shoppers, lacto-ovo vegetarians, animal welfare shoppers, and organic shoppers. There's a lot of commonality to them but each one has their own unique issues."
Cage-free fans are concerned about beak trimming and, obviously, cages. Simple enough. So are lacto ovo vegetarians, but they're also working with a modified diet, so the company makes sure those eggs get some Omega-3 fatty acids and Vitamin E, the same stuff that goes into the Omega-3 eggs. This is where it gets confusing, and a little strange. Brunnquell says the "nutrition" shoppers who buy those tend to prefer a white egg. "It's probably in my opinion subconscious," he says. "For us its a matter of which chicken we would feed to lay the egg." The organic egg seems to come closest to my fantasy Super Egg and Brunnquell didn't seem to disagree. "The issue is cost," he said. Organic feed is alot more expensive, which is why those eggs generally retail for forty to fifty cents a dozen more than the others.
Most importantly, which ones taste the best? Over the summer I tried 'em all, each time pausing in front of the egg section too long, puzzling over which to choose before I grabbed one randomly in frustration. Eventually I vowed to find a favorite and bought a dozen of each all at once. I fried, boiled, scrambled, and made omelets scientifically, one of each, each time taking notes and pictures and eating with separate forks. I'll be hornswoggled if I can identify a significant difference. Well, the white shells on the Omega-3s were easy to peel, and the Vegetarians had a darker, prettier yolk, but a tendency to break (consistent with my impression of vegetarian humans). They all tasted the same.
"All are raised in a cage-free environment," says Brunnquell, and none of the hens' diets have drugs, hormones, antibiotics or animal byproducts. "You won't see a dramatic taste difference between our four types of eggs." Now he tells me.
But its easy to see the differences between these and "commodity eggs," as Brunnquell calls them. I compared the Cage Free eggs with regular Jewel brand Grade A Large whites and Rose Acre Dutch Farms Grade A Extra Large whites (also available at Cermak). The Jewel eggs were sad little weaklings with flimsy whites and tiny yolks that flattened in the pan compared to the Egg Innovations, which sat up proudly, with firm whites that actually got a little too tough when hard boiled. But the Dutch Farms eggs were something else. Mind you, they're bigger than the the designer eggs, fearsome ammunition, but there was also something ineffably eggier in the way they tasted. Their omelettes were fluffier and had a tendency to crisp up, and the whites were softer when hard boiled, though those eggs also flattened. Rose Acre, of Seymour, Indiana, markets a line of cage free and Omega-3 eggs too, and the carton of regular eggs I bought claims their hens are "fed natural grains, drink fresh water & enjoy country fresh air in a spacious environment." Still, the carton is styrofoam and didn't have all those impressive "certified humane" stamps Egg Innovations' did.
Right now Rose Acre eggs cost $1.29 a dozen at Cermak, while all Egg Innovations varieties are $3.29 (up 30 cents from last month). For some reason Cermak (or its distributor) is absorbing the higher cost for the Certified Organic eggs. Get 'em while they're cheap.