How to Make Sense of Egg Carton Labels
Free-range vs. pasture-raised vs. cage-free vs. organic vs. all the rest.
If you think the periodic table is confusing, take a look at the egg carton labels of your local grocery store. So many words! So many symbols! And why are some cartons $2 a dozen and others $8?
If you’re seeking the best choice in terms of hen welfare and environmental sustainability, look for eggs that are pasture-raised or free-range, humane, and organic. These eggs will cost you more, but they’re better for the farmers, the animals, and the planet. At the store, we reach for Handsome Brook Farms, Vital Farms, Carol’s, and Pete and Gerry’s. Or take a trip to the farmers market, where you can ask the farmer about the chickens they came from and direct your money straight to the source. The eggs are likely to be fresher too.
For more details on egg carton labels, check out the list below, organized by what the terms broadly refer to:
Various third-party organizations give seals, like Certified Humane, American Humane Certified, and American Welfare Approved by AGW, to indicate that a farm meets requirements for factors like flock density and beak trimming. It’s important to remember that not all of these standards are equal: They vary by organization and are determined differently for cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised eggs. A more detailed understanding of what each seal means requires independent research.
Cage-free and free-range
Though these terms are regulated by the USDA, they’re ambiguous and misleading. Generally, they refer to eggs from chickens who live in open barns or warehouses rather than in battery cages (as is the case with conventional eggs). Free-range birds have some kind of access to the outdoors (often better than nothing), but the size and quality of that area is not dictated. Cage-free do not.
Since this term is not regulated by the USDA, it doesn’t mean anything unless it’s also verified humane by a third-party organization (like the three listed above). In that case, it indicates the highest standard of space and welfare. Because so much space is required, these eggs tend to be cultivated on smaller farms with fewer birds (say, 10,000 as compared to 250,000).
Don’t confuse this term with a stamp of humane treatment. Like free-range and free-roaming, the birds have unspecified outdoor access. The difference is that they’re fed organic feed without animal by-products, antibiotics, hormones, or pesticides. For pasture-raised birds, the land they graze on must also meet organic requirements.
The chickens are fed a diet that doesn’t include any GMOs (but that’s not necessarily organic).
All eggs contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in their yolks, but these birds are fed supplements, like flaxseed, fish oil, and alfalfa meal, to increase those numbers.
Pasteurization kills any harmful bacteria inside or outside the egg, which is handy for people who like to eat eggs runny or in raw forms (like Caesar dressing) but can’t risk any chance of foodborne illness.
Natural, farm-fresh, and vegetarian-fed
Ignore this meaningless marketing lingo. “Vegetarian-fed” is especially dicey—hens are natural omnivores (grub and worms, yum); if they’re “vegetarian,” chances are they’re confined indoors.
Grade AA, A, or B
This refers to the eggs’ appearance—the higher the grade (AA is the highest), the more shapely and spot-free the egg, with firm whites, pert yolks, and clean shells.