Candid and sensible green living advice since 1999.
January 30th, 2012
Posted in: Green Kitchen, Green Terms, Greenwashing, Sustainable Food

Understanding egg carton labels

Unless you’ve got egg laying chickens clucking around your backyard, you’ve seen the dizzying selection of eggs at the supermarket. Cartons touting everything from “free range” to “vegetarian fed” to “no antibiotics”—up to a half dozen claims and labels that can lead to confusion instead of confident decisions about what it all means.

In this age of greenwashing, buyers are advised to be aware of claims that are more marketing hype than guarantees that the eggs are from happy, healthy hens. Below is an explanation of the labels you are likely to see on a carton of eggs in your supermarket or food coop, and what they mean. I’ve given each label a subjective ranking of meaningfulness on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being poor, 5 being very good).

Animal Welfare Approved (5)
The Animal Welfare Approved label, given only to family farms, verifies that participating farms put each individual animal’s comfort and well-being first. Hens must have continuous access to both foraging pasture and housing or shelter. Hens receive vegetarian feed to supplement their natural foraging. Non-therapeutic antibiotics are not used and hens that need antibiotics to treat a disease cannot be used to produce eggs.

Food Alliance Certified (4)
The Food Alliance website doesn’t get real specific about their definition of “access to pasture,” so it’s hard to say if its standards go as far as AWA’s –or perhaps further. They do say that “living conditions and space allowances provide for excellent physical health and comfort.” As with most third party certifications for laying hens, the use of hormones and non-therapeutic antibiotics is prohibited. The animals diet may include feed containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), primarily because Food Alliance maintains that nearly all livestock feeds are formulated from commingled supply, and it is currently unreasonable to require participants to use non-GMO feeds.  This may be true, and why Certified Humane and AWA don’t ban GMOs in feed either.  Only USDA Organic feed (fed to USDA Organic hens) is ostensibly free of GMOs.

USDA Organic (4)
Eggs carrying the USDA Organic label come from hens that are fed an organic diet (feeds containing no toxic and persistent chemical pesticides, animal by-products or genetically engineered crops), receive no antibiotics or hormones and are given access to pasture. The USDA Organic standards don’t go far enough in defining “access to pasture” in a meaningful way, so I recommend buying the Organic label in conjunction with one on the labels above.

Certified Humane (3)
The Humane Farm Animal Care program wrote and oversees the Certified Humane label.  As far as diet, hens are fed a vegetarian diet without antibiotics or hormones. As far as quality of life, hens are given shelter, resting areas, and sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviors, but access to pasture is not a requirement. (It’s interesting that Humane Farm Animal Care doesn’t think spending time outdoors and foraging is a natural behavior for hens.)

Vegetarian Fed (2)
If you are a vegetarian, this label will certainly get your attention.  But a hen’s natural diet includes animal protein from sources like bugs, worms, crickets and grasshoppers, so while vegetarian feed will guarantee the hens weren’t fed foreign animal proteins (e.g. from the cattle industry or from their own peers), healthy hens have the ability to access pasture where they can forage for essential animal proteins.  For this reason, skip the “vegetarian fed” label in favor of one of the labels above.

No Antibiotics Administered (2)
If you are buying eggs with the Organic, AWA, Certified Humane or Food Alliance Certified label, you don’t need to look for the “no antibiotics” label as well because the aforementioned labels attest to the their absence. If you are not, choose this label—but with caution. This is a claim that has no third party verification system. You are taking the producer at their word.

Free Range (2)
Free range hens are given access to outside pasture for part of each day. The problem with the unregulated “free range” claim is that access is not qualified. There is no guarantee that access was continuous or unproblematic. Free range can apply to hens that received limited and impeded access to the outdoors, and in reality spend most if not all of there time in cages or over crowded hen houses. Not exactly the pastoral picture the term “free range” evokes.

Cage-free (1)
As with “free range” there is no third-party oversight to this claim. Cage-free hens don’t live in cages, but can spend most or all of their lives in crowded barns or warehouses.

Free-Roaming (1)
OK, you’re starting to get the picture here: another spin on “free range” or “cage-free” but equally void of standards to ensure that hen’s have spent time outdoors or been able to engage in natural behaviors.

No Hormones (1)
US Agricultural laws do not permit artificial hormones in poultry rearing, so there is no reason for this label to be on an egg carton.

Naturally Raised (1)
This is pure marketing since there is no legal definition of naturally raised.

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  1. It’s amazing how convoluted everything has become – I need a cheat sheet for my grocery shopping.

    Comment by Liz — January 30, 2012 @ 8:54 pm

  2. So true! The USDA Organic label might have sufficed, but the expansion of labels occurred primarily for two reasons. First, many sustainable food advocates feel that the USDA Organic Standards Act doesn’t go far enough in prohibiting certain farming practices viewed (by its critics) as unsustainable or inhumane, and second, there is money to be made by certifying producers…so now we have many competing labels–all with slight to great differences in what they mean. You are absolutely right that a cheat sheet is needed. Perhaps I will work on one.

    Comment by admin — January 31, 2012 @ 1:50 am

  3. Cage free, no hormones,and free roaming would all draw my attention and seem most forward and clear. I agree with Liz, where’s my cheat sheet?

    Comment by Shelley — February 1, 2012 @ 2:10 am

  4. Shelley, The claims you mentioned are working on you! They get your attention and that’s the point, but unfortunalty they are among the least meaningful. Sounds like you genuinely care about how laying hens are treated, so I’d recommend trying to buy eggs with a label ranked as 3 or above.

    Comment by admin — February 1, 2012 @ 10:37 pm

  5. Thanks for the recognition!

    To answer your questions Liz and Shelley, Animal Welfare Approved has a cheat sheet. It’s called Food Labeling for Dummies, and it’s a free resource, updated regularly and available on our website for download ( It provides clear and factual definitions of the most commonly used claims and terms for farmed products. Hope it helps!

    Comment by Beth — February 9, 2012 @ 9:12 pm

  6. Can’t believe how false some of these egg labels are. Makes me so mad. And thanks Beth – that Food Labeling guide you linked to is totally what I needed!

    Comment by John-P — February 10, 2012 @ 1:14 pm

  7. I am the Executive Director of Humane Farm Animal Care and we wrote the standards for the Certified Humane program. The objective of our program was to change the way farm animals are raised in the US, and our first objective was to get laying hens out of cages and once out of cages, to meet their welfare needs. Since laying hens are indoors in much of the United States most of the year due to weather conditions, we wrote the standards to meet the needs of the hens whether they are indoors or outdoors. The hens indoors are required to have dustbathing, perching, light and dark periods, clean air, and defined space requirements. As for foraging, they can perform this behavior indoors in the dustbathing area. The Animal Welfare Approved Program has excellent standards. The organic program may require “outdoor access” for laying hens, but there are no standards for the laying hens that are in barns for most the year, which would be those in the Northern U.S. This means that for 3 or 4 months of the years those birds may get outside but for the rest of the time since there are no space requirements, no clean air requirements, no dustbathng material requirements, no perching requirements, those laying hens lead a barrn life. If I were a laying hen, I’d prefer the Certified Humane standards that make sure I have a high level of welfare 12 months of the year, not just 3 or 4 months of the year.

    Comment by Adele Douglass — February 10, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

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