Deciphering Egg Carton Labels
There are many egg choices in the grocery store with different labels—cage-free, free range, pasture-raised, organic. Here is what these terms mean.
Cage-free eggs are defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) as eggs laid by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor spaces while having access to fresh food and water. Although this method of egg production is considered to be more humane than the longtime standard of battery cages, some cage-free farms may restrict outdoor grazing, and their hens’ nutrition may not be as good as that of hens allowed outside.
Free-range hens follow the same rules as cage-free, with the added requirement of having access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. How much time the hens are permitted to spend outside is open to interpretation, although some animal welfare groups define it as at least six hours per day of outdoor access with at least two square feet of outdoor space per bird.
This term isn’t defined by the USDA, but if eggs come with a third-party animal welfare certification seal, more robust standards of care have been applied. Certified Humane and American Humane Certified both expect pasture-raised, egg-laying hens to have at least 108 square feet of pasture with live vegetation, and for those fields to be rotated so that fresh vegetation is always available. Having access to the outdoors year-round means they must also have access to a barn for protection from predators. Pasture-raised (and organic eggs described below) often have darker, yellower yolks and contain less cholesterol, which may be due to the continuous access to live vegetation and because they have more omega-3 fatty acids.
Organic egg-laying hens must be provided with 100 percent organic feed without the use of pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. They must also be able to graze outside for at least 120 days per year and are given antibiotics only in the event of an infection.
- Local or locally produced eggs must originate less than 400 miles from the processing facility or within the state the eggs originated from and were processed in.
- Vegetarian fed ensures that no animal byproducts were used to feed the hens.
- Grass fed is not defined by the USDA.
- No hormones is a misleading term, as the USDA has banned the use of hormones, and all eggs are hormone-free.