Jane Says: Here's How to Unscramble Egg Carton Labels

If buying eggs at the supermarket confounds you, this guide will help clear up what all of that labeling language actually means.

(Photo: Getty Images)

Apr 3, 2014· 4 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
“The various labels on egg cartons are so confusing. What do they all mean?”
—Lauren Green

The claims and labels on egg carton labels have to do with how the hens are treated—whether they are caged or allowed to hunt and peck on green pasture, for instance—and/or what the birds are fed. The issues involved can be as perplexing as the ancient chicken-or-egg conundrum: Certified-organic eggs may come from a chicken that’s cage-free, yet spends most of her life indoors; the feed of laying hens raised according to the high standards of the Animal Welfare Institute isn’t always GMO-free.

Your best option is to buy eggs from a small-scale producer at the farmers market who you know and trust—you have the chance to ask questions about how the birds are raised and what they’re fed. We don’t all live in a perfect world, though, and the supermarket egg case can be confusing for even the savviest shopper. Unless labels to the contrary are on the carton, you can presume that the eggs are from conventionally raised hens, even if they are “farm fresh.”

Conventionally raised birds are packed into cruelly small multiple cage systems (battery cages), which “help protect against predators,” according to an American Egg Board fact sheet evidently geared to people who fell off the turnip truck yesterday. But pressure from animal welfare advocates as well as an increasing consumer demand for humane practices are driving long-overdue changes in the industry; some states have followed the European Union’s lead and have banned the use or new construction of battery cages—including California, where the law goes into effect in 2015.

A Guide to Unscrambling Egg Carton Labels

Animal Care

American Humane Certified: Although this program, administered by the American Humane Association, includes producers of cage-free birds, it is the only welfare program to permit the use of cages for housing egg-laying hens (go figure!). Forced molting (to optimize egg production and quality) is prohibited; beak cutting (to prevent cannibalism and, yep, hen-pecking) is allowed.

Animal Welfare Approved: Program participants are limited to independent small-scale farmers, who are subject to annual audits by the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI), considered the highest animal welfare protocols of any third-party auditing program by the Humane Society. The stringent Animal Welfare Approved standards include a flock size of no more than 500 birds and considerable ranging and foraging access outside, where the birds can perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. Although organic feed isn't required, the program prohibits the use of animal byproducts and encourages the use of GMO-free feed. Therapeutic antibiotics (for disease treatment) are allowed, but hens that receive them can’t be used to produce eggs for at least twice the licensed withdrawal period of the medicines used. Birds must be allowed to molt naturally; beak cutting is prohibited.

Certified Humane: Cages are prohibited in housing systems, and although there's no requirement that animals have access to the outdoors, producers must allow them space to perform natural behaviors. The birds are fed a diet free of animal byproducts and growth promoters, such as subtherapeutic antibiotics and arsenic; therapeutic antibiotics may be administered. In flocks that are susceptible to outbreaks of cannibalism, beaks may be trimmed. Although the standards aren't as strict as those of the AWI, the certification is still administered by an independent third party, Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), which subjects farmers to annual visits and requires diligent record-keeping.

Food Alliance Certified: The hens are cage-free and given access to the outdoors or natural daylight. They’re free to perform natural behaviors, and there are specific requirements for nesting boxes, stock density, and so on. Forced molting is prohibited; beak cutting, allowed. The Food Alliance “provides a sustainability standard which livestock producers may use to evaluate management practices, measure social and environmental performance, or seek voluntary third-party certification.”

United Egg Producers (UEP) Certified: You’ll find this logo, from the leading trade association for egg farmers, on lots of supermarket egg cartons, but don’t be misled. Their animal welfare standards permit the routine horrors found in industrial egg-laying facilities—including a cage space allowance of 67 to 86 square inches of usable space per bird. That’s smaller than a letter-size sheet of paper.

Cage-Free: Under USDA regulations, birds are free to roam inside barns and engage in many natural behaviors, but in general don’t have access to the outdoors. Although a definite improvement over battery confinement, the term tells consumers nothing about what the birds are fed or antibiotic inputs. Beak cutting is permitted. No third-party auditing.

Free-Range/Free-Roaming: In addition to meeting cage-free standards, the USDA (and industry) definition of this term is that birds must be allowed access to the outdoors—a concrete slab counts, as does a single small door in a barn that houses thousands of birds. The term does not signify what the birds are fed. No third party auditing.

Pasture-Raised/Pastured: This term implies that the laying hens get to hunt, peck, and graze outdoors on various greens and insects (their natural diet). In 2007, an egg testing study of 14 flocks around the country by Mother Earth News found that, compared to USDA nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture may contain: 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, and 7 times more beta carotene. Pastured eggs are available at farmers markets and, less commonly, at the supermarket. No third party auditing.

A Guide to Understanding Egg Carton Labels

(Illustrated by Lauren Wade)

Animal Diet

Antibiotic-Free/No Added Antibiotics/Raised Without the Use of Antibiotics: According to the U.S. Poultry and Egg Association, this claim can be only be made by egg producers who choose not to use any antibiotics in feed or water during the growing period of pullets or while hens are laying eggs. The term isn’t USDA approved, but under USDA regulations, poultry (and meat) products can be labeled as “no antibiotics added” if documentation is provided showing that the hens were raised without antibiotics. No third-party auditing.

Certified Organic: A USDA-certified organic label means the eggs come from cage-free hens with outdoor access (the amount and duration, however, aren’t well defined), and the hens are fed certified-organic feed. Forced molting and debeaking are permitted. Antibiotics are prohibited, although in a loophole reported by Tom Philpott in Mother Jones, the standard kicks in on “the second day of life” for chicks, including those on organic farms.

Hormone-Free: This claim is nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Egg-laying hens are not given hormones.

Natural: As defined by the USDA, all this term means is that nothing was added to the egg. It doesn’t indicate how the hen was raised, what it was fed, or the use of antibiotics. All eggs are “natural.”

Omega-3 Enriched: These eggs are from hens (caged unless otherwise noted) fed a diet rich in the omega-3 fatty acids, which help sustain eye, heart, and nerve health. The omega-3s usually come from flax seeds and/or fish oil. There’s no third party auditing, but check the nutrition panel on the carton before paying a premium for enriched eggs: Factory-farmed eggs naturally have about 50 milligrams of omega-3s, and many “enriched" eggs have that same amount. If you have a choice, opt for pastured eggs instead—they have up to twice the amount of omega-3s as factory-farmed eggs and come from happier birds.

Vegetarian-Fed/Vegetarian: This term means that the birds’ feed does not contain the animal byproducts that may be found in conventional feed, such as chicken litter, feather meal, and other unsavories that give a whole new meaning to “waste not, want not.” Chickens are not naturally vegetarian, however; their idea of an all-you-can-eat buffet includes insects, worms, and grubs.