Spring—it’s the eagerly anticipated season of new life and fertility, the transition from a winter slumber to an active, fruitful growing season. The egg symbolizes these notions and is traditionally used across many cultures to celebrate spring. Whether you're celebrating Easter by dying your eggs using all-natural dyes, setting your Seder plate with an organic Beitzah(a hard-boiled egg, symbolizing the festival sacrifice) or just whipping up an omelet, it’s the perfect time to reflect upon how eggs make it to our plates and how our choices in eggs, guided by labels, affect our health and the environment.
Egg labels are confusing. Deceptive or poor labeling has been an issue in the sale of eggs practically since they started leaving the farm. However, armed with the right information, you can find eggs that reflect your sustainable values. To assist you in your quest for a truthful and socially responsible egg purchase, we've put together this guide and glossary of egg labels and terminology.
Eggs available in US grocery stores are labeled based on grade (the firmness of the whites), size (based on the weight of a dozen) organic certification (or lackthereof) and animal welfare. Only cartons with the USDA shield conform to USDA policies and regulations. Otherwise, the eggs may be subject to state regulations or to no regulations at all. The different labels are summarized below, and terms are defined in a glossary at the end of the article.
HOW BIRDS ARE RAISED
- Cage Free
- Free Range
ANIMAL CARE LABELS
- Animal Welfare Approved
- Certified Humane Raised and Handled
- American Humane Certified
- United Egg Producers Certified
WHAT BIRDS ARE FED
- Vegetarian Fed
- No Hormones
- No Antibiotics
- Natural, Naturally Raised
PROPERTIES OF EGGS
HOW BIRDS ARE RAISED
Cage Free: Regulated by the USDA. Chickens were kept out of cages and had continuous access to food and water, but did not necessarily have access to the outdoors for longer than five minutes a day. There is no verification process for this claim.
Free Range: Regulated by the USDA. In addition to meeting cage-free standards, free-range birds must have continuous access to the outdoors, unless there’s a health risk present. There are no standards, though, for that outdoor area. There is no verification process for this claim.
Pasture-raised: There is no regulation or verification of this term, which implies that hens got at least part of their food from foraging on greens and bugs. Adherents claim that studies have shown pasture-raised eggs have more nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin E and beta carotene, and less saturated fat and cholesterol.
Fertile: The term is unregulated but implies that the eggs were likely to have been fertilized because the hens were uncaged and raised near a rooster. Fertile eggs are stored at temperatures too cold for chicks to develop.
ANIMAL CARE LABELS
Animal Welfare Approved: A program of the Animal Welfare Institute, this label is widely regarded as the gold standard for humane treatment and given only to independent family farmers. Flocks can have no more than 500 birds, and chickens over 4 weeks old must be able to spend all their time outside on pesticide-free pasture with a variety of vegetation. They must have access to dust baths and cannot have their beaks trimmed or be fed animal byproducts.
Certified humane raised and handled: Hens marked by this label are kept cage free, though not necessarily outdoors. “Certified humane raised and handled” is administered by Humane Farm Animal Care, the only animal welfare program audited each year for reliability by the USDA. It is endorsed by many animal welfare organizations. It has requirements for, among other things, ventilation, density and the number of perches and nesting boxes that must be provided. It requires that each hen have at least 1.5 square feet of space (324 square inches).
American humane certified: Created by the American Humane Association, this label allows for both cage-confinement and cage free (but not necessarily outdoors). Hens confined in these "furnished cages" have about the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper. Its standards prohibit forced molting (reducing feed to increase egg production) and require that hens have at least 1.25 square feet of space (225 square inches).
United Egg Producers Certified: This label, presented by the United Egg Producers, is America’s leading trade association for egg farmers, and has standards for caged and cage-free layers. Many animal welfare advocates say those standards are too low. The standards permit hens to have as little as 67 square inches of space, less than a letter-size sheet of paper, which is 93.5 square inches.
WHAT BIRDS ARE FED
Organic: This label means that the eggs meet the standards of the agriculture department’s National Organic Program. Among the requirements: birds must be kept cage free with outdoor access (time and the type of access are not defined), they cannot be given antibiotics and their food must be free from animal byproducts and made from crops grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, irradiation, genetic engineering or sewage sludge. If organic eggs do not have the program’s emblem, they may be part of an independent or state-run program, and you may have to do some investigating to determine the program’s standards.
Vegetarian Feed: For eggs with the USDA grade shield, “vegetarian-fed” indicates that the eggs came from hens raised on all-vegetarian feed. It should be noted that hens are not naturally vegetarian. They naturally feed on grubs, bugs and worms. There isn’t a substantial nutritional difference between these eggs and conventional eggs—the appeal of vegetarian eggs is mostly for those who are – understandably – concerned about byproducts that can be included in conventional chicken feed such as feather meal, chicken litter, pork and cattle byproducts and “spent hen meal” (ground up dead hens).
No Hormones: The FDA has not approved any hormone products for egg production, so this term is meaningless.
No Antibiotics: The FDA does not allow routine use of antibiotics in egg production but does not define or regulate the term “no antibiotics.” This claim is verified only when the eggs are USDA graded (meaning that hens did not receive nontherapeutic antibiotics but may still have been treated with antibiotics if ill) or if the eggs are a part of the National Organic Program (which bans antibiotics entirely after chicks are 3 days old, even if ill).
Natural, All-Natural and Naturally Raised: These labels are essentially meaningless. Producers can use these labels at will because they are neither regulated nor defined.
PROPERTIES OF EGGS
Omega-3 : This claim implies that eggs have extra omega-3 fatty acids from being fed diets that include good sources of omega-3, like flaxseed or algae. USDA-graded producers are audited to make sure hens' diets have been fortified and that omega-enriched eggs do not get swapped out for cheaper ones. While the FDA can audit producers' claims about omega-3s, they typically only do so if there has been a complaint. Unless the eggs claim to contain higher levels of docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) omega-3s (thought to be more important for cardiovascular health), the omega-3s are probably primarily in the alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) form.
Pasteurized: This term refers to eggs heated to temperatures just below the coagulation point to destroy pathogens and is regulated by the FDA.