How to decode egg labels

Every day, people stop and stare at egg displays at the supermarket. They open and close the egg cartons, look at pictures on the carton of hens dancing in the sunshine, and mull over words, like “natural” or “organic,” in an effort to determine if the eggs they are holding were laid by happy hens.

For people who care how hens are raised, the quickest and easiest solution to this egg dilemma is to look for egg cartons with the Certified Humane Raised and Handled® label. The Certified Humane® label assures consumers that farmers are adhering to a precise set of Animal Care Standards. These standards are written and continually updated by world-renowned veterinarians and animal welfare scientists. And, in the interest of full transparency, our Standards are displayed on our website for everyone see.

In addition to lighting, air, and food requirements, these standards also require cage-free living, enrichments for the hens, like perches and proper space where they can do what hens do, like flapping their wings or dustbathing their feathers.

The Certified Humane® label also guarantees that third-party inspectors – veterinarians and animal welfare scientists with master’s degrees or Ph.D.’s in their field of farm animal care – routinely inspect farms to ensure these standards are always being met and followed.

Simply put, the Certified Humane® label lets consumers know that Humane Farm Animal Care is on the job setting the standards and verifying the well-being of the laying hens in the program.

This knowledge will make you a rock star on the egg aisle. As you hone in on the Certified Humane® label and grab your eggs and go, people will see your certainty about your purchase and will stop to look at what eggs you just bought.

If you feel compelled to educate others about the Certified Humane® label, we want you to be super savvy about the egg industry’s marketing lingo. After all, your friends may try to convince you their “natural” eggs belong to hens that are humanely-raised too. (They are not).

So, here’s a primer on the terms most commonly seen on egg cartons and what those terms mean (or don’t mean) for the hens on the farm.

The “Organic” label, regulated by the USDA, addresses environmental issues, and not the well-being of laying hens. The USDA defines “Organic” as a labeling term “that indicates that the food or other agricultural product has been produced through approved methods that integrate cultural, biological, and mechanical practices that foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity. Synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, irradiation, and genetic engineering may not be used.”

While a USDA blog refers to organic eggs as coming from hens who have “liberal access to the outdoors,” it does not provide any specific requirements of the space and leaves it up the farmer and certifying agent to decide upon.

Non-GMO means a hen is fed a diet that is free from genetically-modified organisms. That is good, but that’s all it means when alone on an egg carton. “Non-GMO” doesn’t outline any humane standards of care for laying hens.

Some people think the words “Vegetarian-Fed” means hens are vegetarians. They are not. On pasture, hens eat worms, grubs, and bugs. But vegetarian-fed does mean your hens aren’t being fed animal by-products, like ground chicken. This is a good thing, which is covered in our Animal Care Standards too. But again, these words alone do not offer any humane standards of care for laying hens.

This label is regulated by the USDA, and means, “Hens can move freely within the building/hen house and have unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.” Under this term, however, the USDA offers no space requirements for the laying hens. The Certified Humane® program requires “1.5 square feet per hen, litter for dust bathing, perches for the birds, and ammonia levels at a maximum of 10ppm, which means the scent is imperceptible,” just to cite a few of our humane standards for hens living cage-free in barns.

The “Free-Range” label is regulated by the USDA and acknowledges “continuous access to the outdoors during their production cycle, which may or may not be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.” It sounds great, but like the word “Organic,” Free-Range doesn’t stipulate what outdoor access really means, or how much space is required for the hens, which means anyone can put “Free-Range” on their label, even if the hens are outside for five minutes. Certified Humane® defines Free-Range as having at least 6 hours of outdoor access and a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per bird.

The term “Pasture-Raised” is not regulated by the USDA and is a marketing term used solely to confuse consumers. Wow, right? This marketing term dupes many consumers into believing that hens are on pasture-all day. Because it’s not a regulated term, anyone can slap “pasture-raised” across their egg carton. Certified Humane® does have a definition for “Pasture-Raised, which requires 6-hours of outdoor space and 2-square-feet per bird. Currently, eight farms are Certified Humane® “Pasture-Raised.”

Under the USDA, “Meat, poultry, and egg products labeled as “natural” must be minimally-processed and contain no artificial ingredients.” In other words, the “natural” label is about how the food is processed and does not include any definitions for how the hens are care for on the farm.

It might surprise you to learn that Federal regulations have banned the use of growth in hormones in poultry since the 1950s.

So, labels that say, “no antibiotics” or “no hormones” on egg cartons are just trying to make you think that other farmers may be using them. It’s a sneaky term that again has nothing to do with the humane treatment of laying hens.

The word “Humane” is not regulated by the USDA, which is why Humane Farm Animal Care launched in 2003 and gathered the world’s top veterinarians and animal welfare scientists to write humane standards of care for farm animals. Just like any other animal, cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, goats, turkeys and other farm animals deserve to have their emotional, mental and physical needs met. We believe they should be raised and housed in a way that allows them to express natural behaviors throughout their lives. Backed by science and confirmed by inspectors, the Certified Humane Raised and Handled® label is the label egg shoppers should look for it they want to buy their eggs from farmers interested in meeting a higher standard of welfare for their hens. We hope shopping on the egg aisle just got easier for you. Check out our Where to Buy page or download our Certified Humane® app to find stores near you with Certified Humane® eggs.