Easter, as the song says, is on its way. And when we head to the store this year to buy the necessary eggs for coloring, we will face an unparalleled array of options. As the trend toward sustainable eating has ballooned in recent years, the egg producers have responded with cage-free, free-range, and humane versions of the kitchen staple.
For the socially conscious shopper, this sounds like the egg industry is moving in the right direction. But how should a concerned consumer decipher the labels adorning their dozen? What, really, is the difference between cage-free, organic, and humane eggs? Here’s how to tell what you’re really buying.
Conventional eggs: The bulk of eggs sold in the United States are produced in this fashion, coming from chickens in cages. Supporters of conventional methods say these confines give the birds shelter and security; opponents argue the cages limit movement and crowd hens in a way that is both cruel and unsanitary. The least expensive eggs, these can cost less than $2 per dozen.
Cage-free: To earn this label, eggs must come from chickens that are not confined in cages. These hens are given free access to water and food, and room to move about, though animal advocates note the birds are generally limited to indoor spaces and often crowded in quite tightly. As of September 2015, cage-free hens made up about 8.6 percent of the US egg-laying flock. Cage-free eggs can be priced as low as $2.25 per dozen. Cage-free eggs are not to be confused with those labeled “free-range.” Free-range chickens must also have access to some outdoor space.
Organic: To qualify as organic, eggs must come from hens given food grown without pesticides. The chickens must not receive antibiotics or hormones and should have access to the outdoors, though the regulations do not specify the size or quality of the outdoor area. Organic certification generally increases the price of a dozen eggs to more than $4.
Certified Humane: To earn this label, eggs must meet a rigorous set of standards developed by nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care. Requirements include a prohibition on animal by-products in feed, clean litter on floors, daily exposure to light and darkness, sufficient space to perch without disturbance, and twice-daily inspections to ensure birds are not sick or injured. Generally, these eggs are priced from $4 to $6 per dozen.