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.
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.
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.