How organic are your eggs?

UDPATE: I had an opportunity to speak with Petaluma Poultry’s Steve Marht about the study. A third-generation chicken farmer, Marht was obviously pained by the conclusion. You can read his response to the study on the website. But I thought this quote kind of summed things up. “I was really saddened that these guys slammed me. It took five years to break even (financially) with organic. (Marht claims to be the first producer of organic eggs in California and has been in business locally for 27 years).  My farm is kind of like my backyard. I don’t sleep at night because (this kind of thing) bugs me so bad. We are trying to do it right. Organics should be for the many, and not the few. And I want everyone to have our organic eggs to we keep them as affordable as we can.”

Marht spoke at length to BiteClub about his operation, which is considered medium-sized at about 250,000 birds. By comparison, NuCal Foods, in Ripon, Ca., which processes eggs for a number of major grocers and private labels, handles approximately 7.5 million eggs from 11 farms and 7 plants per day. Smaller producers may have up to 1,00 birds, but often less than a few hundred.

In the end, making a choice about eggs comes down to being an informed consumer and purchasing with your conscience. Check out this article for more details on labeling and processing.

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The Cornucopia Institute has released it’s “Organic Egg Scorecard” rating 70 egg producers around the country. With the recent salmonella outbreak, customers are increasingly wary of factory-farmed eggs, and many are looking for more sustainable, organic choices. But be wary of those labels, because funky cardboard packaging and promises of happy chickens don’t always mean well-bred eggs.

The Institute looked for small-to-medium sized family farms raising pastured chickens sold under the farm’s name or to natural grocery stores for it’s highest score of “Exemplary”. At the bottom were large-scale farms that don’t allow for outdoor access.

A few caveats which bear mentioning, however. This study is primarily focused on outdoor access and pasturing for hens, which in my mind isn’t the total picture. Having talked to many poultry producers in the area, I can tell you that raising poultry in pastures is a logistically and financially intensive enterprise, even for the most ethical of producers and near-impossible for large-scale operations. Poultry producers and organic standards boards themselves argue about outdoor access for the birds, as to what is meaningful and natural for the animals versus the economics of creating outdoor access, threats of disease and predators. Organic certification doesn’t necessarily mean that birds must have outdoor access, and often “access” simply means a door or two that the birds often don’t use. It’s hard to argue that chickens that live in small outdoor henhouses and peck and scratch at the dirt and eat bugs are probably more “natural”, but at what cost?

Boutique organic eggs can cost upwards of $5 to $7 a dozen (which is what I paid this week at the farmer’s market), whereas conventional eggs range froom $1.99 to $2.99 and “organic eggs” around $4-$5. I don’t know about you, but at $7 a dozen, I’m not making omelets for breakfast. I actually purchased “organic” grocery eggs to supplement our egg use.

The Takeaway: While small-scale family operations which allow for pasturing are obviously ideal, it’s not always possible to achieve that highest standard. Best bets are to buy eggs at local farm markets or eggs that are pasture raised, but a good bet is to find eggs from hens raised in humane conditions (cage-free) that are fed a vegetarian diet and not treated with hormones or antibiotics.

Here’s the Institute’s Scoreboard for NoCal Organic Eggs…

5-eggs (Beyond Exemplary)
Alexandre Kids, Cresent City
Elkhorn Organics, Prunedale
Vital Farms (from Austin, but available at Whole Foods Markets)
St. John Family Farm, Orland

4-eggs (Excellent)
no local producers

3-eggs (Very Good)
Clover Stornetta, Petaluma
Wilcox Farms (from Washington, but distributed on the West Coast)

2-eggs (Fair)
no local producers

1-egg (“Ethically Deficient”)
Judy’s Family Farm (Petaluma Farms), Petaluma
The study argues that this large-scale operation (which is family-owned) does not provide outdoor access. The farm’s organic certifying agent (Oregon Tilth) has granted them permanent exeption based on the threat of avian influenza.  Petaluma Farms, a large‐scale egg producer in Petaluma, CA, produces both organic and conventional cage‐free eggs for sale under several brand names, which include Judy’s Family Farm, Rock Island, Uncle Eddie’s Wild Hen Farm and Gold Circle. They also produce eggs for the 365 label owned by Whole Foods and Organic Valley for Western US markets.

Petaluma Farms’ hens are, according to its owners, are “cage free, raised with no antibiotics, fed an all vegetarian diet (no animal by-products in their food), raised at the same location near the Pacific Ocean in Northern California, and raised with water, air and housing standards equal to OCIA organic standards.”

Also receiving 1 egg were national egg producers Horizon Organic, Land O’Lakes and Eggland’s Best.

Read the Cornucopia Institute’s full report (fascinating).

What’s your take? Is all the fuss a crack-up, or is there something to be said for outdoor access for chickens?

Author: biteclub

Food Dining and Restaurants in Sonoma County and beyond, BiteClubEats.com is Wine Country dining with Drive-Thru Sensibility.

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34 Comments

  1. I also found this site after doing further research on Judy’s eggs. (I have also talked with Whole Foods in Novato, CA and Good Earth in Fairfax, CA about Judy’s.)

    And I completely agree with Farmer John about the higher price being worth it.

    What is more important, what is more worth spending extra money on than something we actually put in our body, that becomes part of our body?

    We need to think about the other stuff we spend our money on that would *seem* to make high-quality food affordable.

    What if we cancelled cable? What if we ate out less? What if we checked out movies from the library rather than going to the cinema? When was the last time you bought a piece of new clothing that became indispensable?

    One other thing: high-quality and ethically-raised food really do seem to go hand in hand.

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  2. Ugh! I JUST bought a a carton of Uncle Eddie’s. The carton fooled me. duh! I need to do my research…

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  3. Again, I’ll post this, want info. on Petaluma farm’s eggs? iT’S PUBLIC INFO., just look up on your computer, petaluma farms 9/5/12. The FDA site will come up. This is probably why you don’t see a wb-site for their eggs any more, even though they’re sold under a lot of different names.

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  4. Just thought I’d let you know about the FDA’s website: look this up —-Petaluma Farms 9/5/12——you will see what is public information, which really does have an effect on who we get our egg supply from. Factory farms. I found this very interesting.

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  5. Just bought some Uncle Eddie’s tonight at Oliver’s…..did not know it was Judy’s……..well there’s other ways of getting fresh eggs these days….

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  6. I am really disappointed with the organic egg movement. I hope that people realize that “organic” farming does not mean that you have less of a chance of getting salmonella. Salmonella from eggs comes from any feces on the outside of the eggshell that may get into your food while you break the egg. Salmonella on the outside of the eggshell is the result of poor processing after the eggs are harvested and has nothing to do with “organic” chicken farming. In fact, since “organic” hens are kept in more open, less controlled environments then conventional poultry farming, I would go so far as to say that there is MORE of a risk of getting feces and other ubiquitous bacteria all over the eggs before processing. Even in the highly unlikely scenario of salmonella infection being transmitted by the infected ovary of a hen, “organic” farming does not allow for antibiotics, which leads me to my second point…

    Second, antibiotics, or lack of antibiotic treatment in “organic” animals leads to the animals suffering needlessly at the hands of infection. How would you feel if you had an infection and were refused treatment by your doctor because you were supposed to be “organic”? You would likely die of septicemia after suffering long and hard while your body tries to fight the infection.

    Lets review, America. “Organic” farming leads to a double likelihood of salmonella infection based on these two presented points: 1. No antibiotics for infected animals who may have infections on their ovaries which may lead to transmission of salmonella directly into the egg yolk itself or 2. “Organic” “free range” chickens are free to defecate all over every egg before processing, leading to a greater chance of salmonella on the outside of the shell.

    Perhaps if qualified animal scientists were allowed a word in any of this nonsense, people would be less misinformed about transmission of disease in animal husbandry. For more information, ask your local animal scientist!

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  7. Heather
    Thanks for offering to speaking with the Petaluma Poutry people on our behalf and in an effort to learn more. I am looking forward to the response.
    Green String (east of Petaluma), Terra Firma Farm (west of Petaluma) and Laguna Farms (south of Sebastopol) each sell delicious eggs ideally produced.

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  8. John, thank you so much for your post. You really hit so many good points, and I only wish I was more local to you so I can purchase your eggs!

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  9. Great post. I, too, was surprised and dismayed about the Judys/Rock Island/Uncle Eddie’s deal. One more reason to buy CSA-style whereever possible, Pine Fall Ranch, Wyeth Acres, etc.

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  10. We just started buying from Hudson Vineyards, all organic, free range and delicious!
    It is a great relief to source a true organic, pasture raised egg farmer!
    THANK YOU
    Sheana

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  11. Thanks, Everyone, for your replies. I am writing again as I realize that eggs are not only my ideal breakfast food but that I’ve attached a lot of “stuff” to them……perhaps those of you more knowledgeable and less sentimental might guide me?

    You see – as a child, our chickens were part of our family – we ate the eggs, not the birds. And I still like chickens, in the same sense as I like cats, dogs, rabbits, and all other non-human companion animals…. So it’s important to me to buy from farmers who provide the chance at a more or less normal life for their chickens.

    Also my parents were professional farmers. My mother pasteurized our milk back when it was a new concept, for instance and I learned that there are right ways to handle food and dangerous ways. Therefore it’s also important to me that my eggs are properly processed – cleaned, stored at a temperature that supports their viability, etc….

    Farmer John, your eggs sound ideal – that combination of a good life for The Girls and a professional head-set when it comes to handling and storage. Unfortunately I’d have to factor in the cost of gasoline and commute to the farmer’s market to get your eggs – not economically feasible – and what happens when the market closes down for the winter?

    Okay – back to my question. You see, I have a neighbor whose gaggle of beautiful hens run free in her yard and garden all day and get the best organic scratch and etc. She makes their eggs available for sale among neighbors and friends……however I have avoided purchasing them because she does not refrigerate them or sort them by age (as in “first layed, first sold”) and, as a fan of the “over easy” and “soft poach” egg, I am afraid of salmonella or some such….

    You can see why I was so content to use the “cage free” eggs at TJ’s….and now it turns out I was just deluding myself. So – folks – am I stuck paying $1.00/egg (w/ mileage) or should I take a deep breath and really eat local – as in up the block and around the corner?

    Appreciate your thoughts…

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    • Two direct-from-farmer options in Healdsburg and Santa Rosa. Self-serve: help yourself from the refrigerator and leave your money in the jar. ~$4 per dozen. Both have outdoor hen houses, but not pastured, you can see the hens for yourself.

      Adams & Friend Farm
      3022 Trenton Rd, Santa Rosa, CA

      Grandma’s Pumpkin Patch
      17740 Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg, CA

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    • Grass-fed increases the omega 3 ratio to omega 6, which comes from grain. These two fatty acids are best for our health if they are balanced. Grain-fed only means much higher omega 6 levels, which can contribute to debilitating diseases. Also, eggs have a natural protective coating that is washed off with water. Once the egg is washed, bacteria can enter through the shell and the egg loses its freshness faster. Some suggest rinsing the egg in warm water just before using.

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  12. I’ve been very disappointed with Judy’s Eggs – soft shells and easily broken yolks. Now I know why. Overall, I’m impressed with the Clover organic eggs. They seem like healthy eggs: hard shells and firm, yolks; kind of bland though. For taste they don’t stand up to a good pastured egg. And while not always available, I’m more than willing to pay $6 for a dozen of pastured eggs. This was a great report – thanks for printing the info.

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  13. Judy’s “family” of eggs takes up half the egg shelves at Oliver’s in Cotati. While their website gives full disclosure of this fact, it is not clear to the shopper that Rock island, Uncle Eddies, Judy’s, etc., are all the same brand. (Which makes the shopper, i.e. me, feel pretty foolish for dithering over the different cartons at the store.)

    Why so many brands? If scale is the issue for not having open-air access, then why not scale back? Why does one company have to dominate (and shadily, at that) the market in Sonoma County?

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  14. To Roxy and Others,

    I do not believe that Judy’s received a 1 only because they did not participate. It states and/or.
    For clarification, here is exactly what the Cornupcopia scorecard says about Judy’s:

    “industrial organics and/or not open enough to participate

    Petaluma Farms, a large‐scale egg producer in Petaluma, CA, produces both organic and conventional cage‐free eggs for sale under several brand names, which include Judy’s Family Farm, Rock Island, Uncle Eddie’s Wild Hen Farm and Gold Circle. They also produce eggs for the 365 label owned by Whole Foods and Organic Valley for Western US markets.

    Their organic laying hens are not granted outdoor access—their organic certifying agent has granted them a permanent exemption from granting outdoor access based on the “threat” of avian influenza. Other organic egg producers in their area do grant outdoor access for their chickens, making this an unconvincing excuse for permanent confinement.

    Petaluma Farms states on its website that its organic chickens are “raised to conform to USDA organic standards”—a questionable statement since the standards require “year‐round access for all animals to the outdoors,” a requirement to which Petaluma Farms clearly does not conform.”

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    • Yep, I read all that and I have all the same concerns. However, the actual individual scorecard criteria items for Judy’s/Petaluma Farms are mostly left blank which means that they either didn’t participate, or the Cornucopia Institute chose not to continue researching them due to the zero rating for outdoor access. Either way, the evaluation is incomplete. I’m not defending them, I would just like to know how they would have scored in all the criteria had it been a complete evaluation.

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  15. I was very dismayed by the rating of Petaluma Farms – I bought Rock Island exclusively until I decided to go organic and then switched to Judy’s, both Petaluma Farms brands. So I’ve been eating their eggs and trusting their brand for many years. Was I duped? But then I looked closely at the scorecard (click on the Judy’s Family Farm link) – and their rating is a 1 because they did not participate! I wish I knew what their score would have been if they had. While no outside access is concerning, Judy’s is obviously not a small boutique farm or their eggs would be much more expensive. Growing up in Petaluma, I know that “family farms” can be pretty big operations here in Sonoma County. Does that make them the same as large industrial agribusiness like the supermarket brands or criminal operations like DeCoster? I don’t think so. We need a more well-rounded way to evaluate these producers.

    For example, I’d like a better way to compare Judy’s with our other well-known local producer, Clover Stornetta (who got a 3 rating). I’m a big supporter of Clover Stornetta products as well, but as far as outside access for chickens, the scorecard notes for Clover say “one door per 1000-2000 birds”. Do the birds venture out? I don’t know. Is it better to have a small door that may or may not be used than to have open-sided barns full of natural light that may or may not have more sq. ft space per chicken? I really don’t know, and these are some of the the questions I’d like answered before deciding if Clover is a better choice than Petaluma/Judy’s.

    People can put anything on a website, but the Petaluma Farms/Judy’s website certainly has a lot more information about their operations than the Clover Stornetta website. By the way, the link to Clover should got to their organic brand, not their conventional brand: http://www.cloverorganicfarms.com/Products_Organic_Cage_Free_Brown_Eggs_Doz.asp

    Obviously boutique/farmers market eggs are the better choice (short of raising the chickens yourself), but that is just not always feasible, as you point out. So the question is, which brand of grocery store eggs do YOU buy?

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  16. We have been out of eggs for weeks at our shop as we cannot source a local egg producer that can provide us with eggs. We were able to sell every egg by the dozen at $6.00 per dozen. I get eggs through a CSA for myself, although I am looking desperately for eggs for my shop in Sonoma.
    Thanks for the great journalism, as people need to know about their food!

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    • Hi Sheana-
      I am a Sonoma Valley resident with a small flock of handraised, free range, garden working, AA egglayers- that is growing in size. Come winter, my hens should be producing way to many eggs for my family to consume. I am currently handling all the preparations to ensure an eccellent (and legal) product. As I am browsing the internet to find a way to sell my anticipated, dozen a day extra eggs, I am considering all the issues of exactly what the locals are looking for in thier eggs, and also how to market these little gems. I see you have a shop in Sonoma where there is a demand for fresh eggs. Can you tell me more about this? I am interested in supplying for a shop in the near future.

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  17. I am hoping to talk to the Petaluma Poultry people today. But I think before totally condemning them, it’s important to take the issue in context — cage-free and pasture-raised are different. Cage free means that the hens are not in little cages, and that is true for the PP brands. They are not pasture-raised which I have mentioned is financially and logistically difficult when you’re dealing with a large-scale operation. They would need hundreds of acres of land to pasture-raise the chickens which would exponentially increase the price.

    I personally buy Rock Island ad Uncle Eddie’s eggs frequently because to me they represent a reasonable choice — cage-free organic hens that are locally raised. It isn’t always easy to find the Clover eggs, but I will buy those as well. I also support local farmers who have chicken coops and let their chickens outdoors, but like I said, $7 isn’t always in the budget.

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    • Heather, you should get some chickens! When I can’t afford a quality meal at a quality restaurant, I cook one for myself at home.

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  18. I’m a county licensed egg handler/producer in Sonoma county. I currently maintain a flock of only about 150 hens right now. I sell my eggs in Healdsburg at the Healdsburg farmers market. This article explains one of the many reasons I’m NOT certified organic. One reason is it’s cost prohibitive to an ‘operation’ as small as mine. Another reason is, as said, organic doesn’t really mean a thing when it comes to eggs. The standards for the claims commercial egg producers get away with on their cartons is a complete JOKE. When people ask if my eggs are organic, I tell them the truth, I have MUCH higher standards then ‘organic’.

    I charge $6 a dozen at the Healdsburg Farmers Market. That’s $0.50 an egg. I’m lucky if I end up making $0.25/per egg back at the end of the day. It boggles my mind people balk at $0.50 cents vs. $0.16/egg. I pasture raise my hens, I’m primarily a grass fed ‘operation’. This means my hens are let out of their hen house early in the morning and have the entire day to roam and fly(yes, hens fly!) wherever they want. They graze on pasture all day long and eat whatever they come across, bugs, worms,insects, etc.. I also supplement their diet with vegetarian egg layer grain and green compost. Happy hens fed the proper diet produce the highest quality eggs money can buy. Mother Earth News has done studies which support how much more nutritious and beneficial pasture raised eggs are for you;

    Pasture Raised eggs vs. conventional factory farmed eggs;
    • 1⁄3 less cholesterol
    • 1⁄4 less saturated fat
    • 2⁄3 more vitamin A
    • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
    • 3 times more vitamin E
    • 7 times more beta carotene
    (http://www.motherearthnews.com/eggs.aspx)

    You have to eat 3 conventional factory farmed eggs to equal the same nutrition just 1 of my eggs contains.

    I feel it’s reasonable and fair to ask $6.00 a dozen, especially when considering my cost of raising pastured hens is much greater then conventional factory farming methods, as mentioned. Doing it the right way vs. the wrong way does indeed cost more.

    People will pay out the wazoo for Nike’s and flat screen TV’s.. but when it comes to one of the best protein sources available for their family..most skimp out and go right for the cheapest. It’s frightening to realize what some people really value in life. You get what you pay for, especially when it comes to eggs. ‘Shell’ out for a quality product, be more healthy, humane, and help keep our dollars local, OR.. buy the cheapest, just make sure you cook the HECK out of your sub standard $2/dozen factory farmed egg… who knows what diseases,germs, and or other nasty bacteria they might carry, or where they came from?. Ever hear of salmonella? Rest assured they came from an animal that’s lived the most awful life imaginable. PS; did you know the hen is the most abused animal in the world?

    If you value a restaurant quality burger more then you value a $1.00 double cheese burger from McDonald’s, shouldn’t one value an egg the same way? The bottom line is, if you want a superior product, it’s going to be harder to source, and its going to cost you more.

    Pasture raised eggs are better for the hen, better for the environment, they’re better for our local economy, they’re more healthy for your family, and last but not least..they taste the way eggs SHOULD taste, great!

    If you’re interested in pasture raised eggs, check out your local farmers markets or contact me on my fan page,
    http://www.facebook.com/healdsburgeggs
    Farmer John.

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    • Farmer John, I agree with you, thanks for doing what you do. Many people decry the cost of eating local, quality products and I know it’s not always in the budget. But like the old saying “Penny wise, pound foolish.” I will connect with your Facebook page.

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    • I’ve been buying eggs from Farmer John for about six months now, and I recommend the eggs highly.

      I come from a background of homegrown, free range, pastured, (cagefree), vegetable-fed hens that produced magnificent eggs–hard shells, deep orange, thick yolks and whites. I feel lucky that our local farmers are offering us a wonderful alternative to industrially-farmed eggs.

      We have a very modest income but I budget out processed foods and budget in more and more local, unprocessed, organic and beyond, HEALTHFUL food choices. Our health is in our pocketbooks. What to you give up when you buy industrialized food–your health.

      What would you have to “give up” to afford good eggs?

      Backyard chickens are a great choice, too!

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    • Post of the year, Farmer John!

      “You get what you pay for” — boy howdy, truer words were never submitted in a comment. Church!

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  19. Rena,
    Trader Joe’s does not disclose where they source their TJ’s brand products. That is the main reason I no longer shop there.

    I too feel a pit let down about Judy’s/Petaluma Farm eggs. Going to have to do a bit of egg shopping and take a printout of this site to the local Whole Foods.

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    • It’s a mixed bag. I also know of at least one super sustainable local producer who sources to TJ’s. They can’t reveal it publicly, but she admitted it when I asked her.

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      • I emailed Trader Joe’s asking if they would disclose their egg suppliers for the Petaluma store. Here is their response :

        “Thank you for sharing your concerns. Trader Joe’s does not disclose the
        farms in which our private label products come from. However, all our
        eggs for our CA stores are sourced from CA. The eggs for your region
        are sourced from central CA farms.”

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  20. I feel cheated. I have been buying Judy’s eggs but I won’t any more. Plus, I already wrote to Whole Foods and asked them to stop carrying them. I urge other readers to do the same. I’ve been paying for eggs from chickens with outdoor access but Petaluma Farms (owner of Judy’s brand) has not been paying to provide the outdoor access. I feel this is wrong, and it is wrong of Whole Foods to carry Petaluma Farms eggs.

    To write to Whole Foods you must go to the individual store’s web page.

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  21. Check the site but I believe they were a 1egg. Along with most of the other national brands. It’s kind of a locals vs industrial thing so consider with a dose of salt

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  22. Hmmmmmm………….so where are the “cage free” eggs sold by Trader Joe’s on this list?

    (I ran out a couple of days ago and so the carton went out w/ the recylcing….)

    Anybody know?

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  23. Well, I’ll be gobsmacked!!! I have been buying Petaluma Farms eggs from Olivers and G&G thinking I was doing a good thing. “Ethically deficient??? I only know that they don’t cause internal distress that the eggs that come in styrofoam from the large chains do, and I can’t afford $7.00 for 12 eggs

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