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Translating Egg Labels

Posted on Monday, May 21st, 2012 at 12:35 pm under Eat Well.
egg in pan of water

Courtesy of Steve Johnson

Eggs are a nutritional powerhouse, packing 6 grams of protein into each shell. But, what’s going on with egg labels? For the health conscious and environmentally concerned, it’s hard to make a sound choice when it comes to eggs.

Head to your grocer and you will see labels that describe how chickens are raised, what they eat, and how they are cared for. But you probably raise an eyebrow when you see the same vendor with standard-raised eggs, and ones more humanely raised. Only cartons with the USDA shield conform to USDA policies and regulations. If you don’t see this shield, eggs may follow state regulations or no regulations at all.

To clear up any egg confusion, we decoded the glossary of egg labels.



The USDA classifies eggs based on the interior and exterior quality at the time of packing.  The exterior of an egg must be clean, sound, and have a certain texture and shape. It must also not be cracked and hold a certain color.

Candling or the breakout method examines the interior of an egg. Inspectors examine the albumen (white part), yolk, and air cell. The thicker and whiter the albumen, the higher the grade of egg. Also, higher-grade eggs have smaller air cells.

(The following terms are courtesy of Ecocentric)

How Chickens are Raised

Cage Free: Regulated by the USDA. Chickens were kept out of cages and had continuous access to food and water, but did not necessarily have access to the outdoors for longer than five minutes a day. There is no verification process for this claim.

Free Range: Regulated by the USDA. In addition to meeting cage-free standards, free-range birds must have continuous access to the outdoors, unless there’s a health risk present. There are no standards, though, for that outdoor area. There is no verification process for this claim.

Pasture-raised: There is no regulation or verification of this term, which implies that hens got at least part of their food from foraging on greens and bugs. Adherents claim that studies have shown pasture-raised eggs have more nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin E and beta carotene, and less saturated fat and cholesterol.

Fertile: The term is unregulated but implies that the eggs were likely to have been fertilized because the hens were not caged and raised near a rooster. Fertile eggs are stored at temperatures too cold for chicks to develop.


How Chickens are Cared for

Animal Welfare Approved: A program of the Animal Welfare Institute, this label is widely regarded as the gold standard for humane treatment and given only to independent family farmers. Flocks can have no more than 500 birds, and chickens over 4 weeks old must be able to spend all their time outside on pesticide-free pasture with a variety of vegetation. They must have access to dust baths and cannot have their beaks trimmed or be fed animal byproducts.

Certified humane raised and handled: Hens marked by this label are kept cage free, though not necessarily outdoors.  “Certified humane raised and handled” is administered by Humane Farm Animal Care, the only animal welfare program audited each year for reliability by the USDA. It is endorsed by many animal welfare organizations. It has requirements for, among other things, ventilation, density and the number of perches and nesting boxes that must be provided. It requires that each hen have at least 1.5 square feet of space (324 square inches).

American humane certified: Created by the American Humane Association, this label allows for both cage-confinement and cage free (but not necessarily outdoors). Hens confined in these “furnished cages” have about the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper. Its standards prohibit forced molting (reducing feed to increase egg production) and require that hens have at least 1.25 square feet of space (225 square inches).

United Egg Producers Certified: This label, presented by the United Egg Producers, is America’s leading trade association for egg farmers, and has standards for caged and cage-free layers. Many animal welfare advocates say those standards are too low. The standards permit hens to have as little as 67 square inches of space, less than a letter-size sheet of paper, which is 93.5 square inches.


What Chickens Ate

Organic: This label means that the eggs meet the standards of the agriculture department’s National Organic Program. Among the requirements: birds must be kept cage free with outdoor access (time and the type of access are not defined), they cannot be given antibiotics and their food must be free from animal byproducts and made from crops grown without chemical pesticides, fertilizers, irradiation, genetic engineering or sewage sludge. If organic eggs do not have the program’s emblem, they may be part of an independent or state-run program, and you may have to do some investigating to determine the program’s standards.

Vegetarian Feed: For eggs with the USDA grade shield, “vegetarian-fed” indicates that the eggs came from hens raised on all-vegetarian feed. It should be noted that hens are not naturally vegetarian. They naturally feed on grubs, bugs and worms. There isn’t a substantial nutritional difference between these eggs and conventional eggs—the appeal of vegetarian eggs is mostly for those who are – understandably – concerned about byproducts that can be included in conventional chicken feed such as feather meal, chicken litter, pork and cattle byproducts and “spent hen meal” (ground up dead hens).

No Hormones: The FDA has not approved any hormone products for egg production, so this term is meaningless.

No Antibiotics: The FDA does not allow routine use of antibiotics in egg production but does not define or regulate the term “no antibiotics.” This claim is verified only when the eggs are USDA graded (meaning that hens did not receive non-therapeutic antibiotics but may still have been treated with antibiotics if ill) or if the eggs are a part of the National Organic Program (which bans antibiotics entirely after chicks are 3 days old, even if ill).

Natural, All-Natural and Naturally Raised: These labels are essentially meaningless. Producers can use these labels at will because they are neither regulated nor defined.


What’s Inside the Egg

Omega-3: This claim implies that eggs have extra omega-3 fatty acids from being fed diets that include good sources of omega-3, like flaxseed or algae. USDA-graded producers are audited to make sure hens’ diets have been fortified and that omega-enriched eggs do not get swapped out for cheaper ones. While the FDA can audit producers’ claims about omega-3s, they typically only do so if there has been a complaint. Unless the eggs claim to contain higher levels of DHA omega-3s (thought to be more important for cardiovascular health), the omega-3s are probably primarily in the ALA form.

Pasteurized: This term refers to eggs heated to temperatures just below the coagulation point to destroy pathogens and is regulated by the FDA.


An Eggs-elent Alternative

Though it’s nice the think that farmers adhere to these rules, many are under the thumb of big business. Chickens are crammed into coops and given little room to move about. They may have access to the outside world, yet cannot make it up the walkway to get out. With the threat of disease constantly looming, chickens that are antibiotic free may never see daylight.

This is not to discourage you from eating eggs. They are one of the most affordable sources of whole nutrition available. Just be conscious of what you pay for. Sometimes the higher priced eggs in the grocer aren’t any better than the standard eggs.

If you have access to a local farm, buy eggs directly. Many farmers sell eggs at the farmer’s market or at small local stores. Chicken coops are popping up all over US neighborhoods, in both rural and urban areas. Your neighbors may be willing to share their eggs if you chip in on the expense of raising the birds.

The Big Question:
Are you confused about egg labels? If so, share your concerns below! 

Further Resources:

Eat Wild: Shop for local eggs in your area

Local Harvest: Pastured Eggs