THE CHICKENS came first, then the eggs, naturally, when Bill and Anne Zeitlow decided to start their natural-foods egg business at Red Lion Farm in Greensboro, Md., three years ago.

The Zeitlows set out to produce "a better egg." To them that means an egg that is fresh, produced by a chicken in a natural setting, and free from additives that "devitalize foods for the convenience of the merchants." Printed on the blue and red cartons of Red Lion Farm brown eggs delivered daily to customers in the District, Maryland, Virginia and beyond are the words: "No Antibiotics. Hens Fed Natural Feed. No Arsenical Drugs."

"I don't like the term 'organic,'" says Bill Zeitlow, a blond-bearded, well-fed fellow in his early 30s who was an Anne Arundel County administrator until he decided budgets were no fun. "You get torn apart by chemists who say that everything is organic. Maybe 'unadulterated' is a better word; as close to pure and natural as possible."

He's sitting in the small office behind the Eastern Shore farmhouse that is headquarters for Red Lion Farms Inc., the business that includes ownership of Sun and Earth natural foods stores in Bethesda and Annapolis and an interest in a third, in Easton, Md. The Zeitlows also started up a wholesale business, to distribute products such as unhomogenized Guernsey milk "straight from the farm," cheese with no dye added, goat's milk, butter, bran, honey, sourdough bread and bacon and hot dogs without nitrites.

But "unadulterated" eggs are their main line and moneymaker. And they say they can't produce enough of them.

Out behind their office in a long, low chickenhouse they keep 12,000 chickens capable, under peak conditions, of producing over 10,000 eggs a day -- which in terms of the giant U.S. egg industry, dominated by producers with hundreds of thousands, even millions of layers, makes theirs a small operation indeed.

But they don't even try to compete with the large commercial producers whose cartons are stacked in supermarkets. They aim, instead, for a specialized market; for people who don't mind paying a bit more for "unadulterated" eggs.

At Sun and Earth in Bethesda, their Grade A large brown eggs sell for $1.08 a dozen; at Home Rule and the P Street Store in Washington they go for $1.35. (Brown eggs, by the way, are no different from white ones -- they just come from different breeds of chickens.)

Bill Zeitlow explains that what is different about their eggs is the hen-house environment, what the birds are fed and how the eggs are processed and distributed.

In larger commercial operations, he says, hens are kept in wire cages, often crowded together, the cages stacked one upon the other to make most efficient use of henhouse space. The houses themselves are windowless, climate-controlled, and highly automated -- the hens' eggs drop from the cage onto a conveyor belt, which delivers them to the sorting and processing operation.

The Zeitlows, by contrast, raise their chickens by the "on-the-floor" method. Their wire-enclosed henhouse allows the birds fresh air and natural light, and its open interior leaves them free to roam and scratch and peck on a dirt floor covered with straw or wood chips. Their flocks of reddish brown hens (the breed is called Sex-sal) are free to lay their eggs wherever they like (often in straw-bedded roosts provided for them), and the eggs are then hand collected. Natural flock and mating behavior is encouraged by the presence of strutting, snowy-white roosters, one for every 20 females. (Most eggs are fertile, which makes no difference to a consumer as long as they are not incubated. If allowed to incubate more than a few days they can no longer be sold as "table eggs.")

The natural setting helps keep the flocks happy and healthy, the Zeitlows say; in fact, inhumane conditions for chickens have become an issue in some parts of this and other countries. Cage-raised birds, explains Anne Zeitlow, can lose their breast feathers from rubbing against their wire cages, and when removed from the cage (a laying chicken is only productive for about 14 months, and is usually then sold off to be stewed) they can't even walk.Many countries now regulate the size of cages and the amount of space per bird. Anne Zeitlow concedes some ambivalence about the humaneness issue; she thinks it must be weighed against the need for efficient food production to feed the world's growing population.

The on-the-floor method, used less and less in this country, contributes to the cost of their product. "Raising chickens on the floor is not economical unless you're serving a specialized market," says Bill Zeitlow. The presence of roosters also adds to the cost -- they must be fed even though they produce no eggs. (Hens lay eggs whether roosters are around or not.)

The second and most controversial difference between their eggs and the typical supermarket variety concerns what the birds are fed. Despite the expression "that's just chicken feed," the right meal for a flock can be an expensive and complicated proposition. The Zeitlows recently turned down a company that wanted to sell them feed containing seemingly insignificant chemicals -- even though it would have saved them $10 a ton over the feed they now use. That adds up, considering their flocks eat about 10 tons a week.

They also reject the use of antibiotics in their feed, a practice used by some producers mainly to reduce the chance of disease under crowded conditions or to increase egg production. Traces of these drugs, the Zeitlows say, can be passed along in the eggs.

Arsenical drugs (from "arsenic," though the chemicals used are organic rather than inorganic like the poison) are used by some producers' to increase the efficiency of feed -- the rate at which chickens turn their food into protein and fat. Most often they are fed to broiler chickens, where weight is especially important. In hot weather Bill Zeitlow will use natural molasses instead to stimulate the birds' appetites.

The Zeitlows concede there are limits to how "natural" an egg can be. The chickens they buy from the hatchery are vaccinated and probably fed artificial ingredients before they reach Red Lion Farm, though at that age they are not yet laying eggs. And the feed the Zeitlows buy is not entirely "organically" grown -- the cost of that is prohibitive.

Is the possible presence of drugs in eggs of more than philosophical concern? Spokesmen at both FDA and the Department of Agriculture stress that the use of these drugs has been carefully studied and is carefully controlled. Any residual traces of them in eggs are "below the level of concern to consumers." If there were any evidence to the contrary, one FDA official said, "you can be sure we'd be all over them."

The third difference the Zeitlows describe that sets their eggs apart is the processing and delivery.

All eggs bound for market are "candled" -- visually inspected before a strong light that illuminates their contents so they can be checked for cracks, blood spots or deformities -- to determine their quality. Egg quality grades (AA, a, etc.) are determined by the condition of the egg, which is mainly a question of freshness."It's almost impossible to have a AA egg more than a week to 10 days old," says Bill Zeitlow, "they downgrade that fast." (Egg sizes -- from "jumbo," which come from older hens, all the way down to "peewee," from the youngest layers -- are determined strictly by weight.)

Processing by hand in a small room at the center of their henhouse, the Zeitlows' employes wash the eggs in hot water to preserve the natural "bloom" -- a secretion from the hen that seals the pores of the shell to keep air and water out. Bloom (also called the cuticle) is sometimes removed by detergent washing in automated processing and replaced by a mineral oil coating, Bill Zeitlow explains.

Eggs lose their freshness over time as air seeps through and expands the air pocket within the egg. In a fresh egg, say the Zeitlows, the thick part of the white that surrounds the yolk will "stand up" when you crack it open, while in a less fresh egg the white is more likely to spread out. (Fresh eggs, adds Anne Zeitlow, are not the best for hard-boiling, since the tight air sac will cause the shell to stick to the inner egg when you try to peel it off.)

A big advantage of Red Lion eggs, says Bill Zeitlow, is "we get 'em to market real fast" usually within two or three days from when they're laid.

In the end, Bill Zeitlow says, whether their unadulterated eggs are really better than others is a subjective question. "We think they taste better," he says.

"To some people we're a luxury," he adds, "to others we're a necessity."