Spring – it’s the eagerly anticipated season of new life and fertility, the transition from a winter slumber to an active, fruitful growing season. The egg symbolizes these notions and is traditionally used across many cultures to celebrate spring. Whether you're celebrating Easter by dying your eggs using all-natural dyes, setting your Seder plate with an organic Beitzah (a hard-boiled egg, symbolizing the festival sacrifice) or just whipping up an omelet, it’s the perfect time to reflect upon how eggs make it to our plates and how our choices in eggs, guided by labels, affect our health and the environment.
Egg labels are confusing. However, armed with the right information, you can find eggs that reflect your sustainable values. To assist you, we've put together this guide to egg labels and terminology. Eggs available in US grocery stores are labeled based on grade (quality and appearance), size (based on the weight of a dozen), organic certification (or lack thereof), animal welfare standards and other characteristics.
Some of the following terms are not regulated by the government or independently verified by any certification agency – in these cases, producers can decide for themselves whether to use the term. While plenty of truly sustainable producers use these terms honestly, there’s not much to stop dishonest conventional producers from using the terms in a misleading way. This demonstrates the importance talking directly to the farmer or choosing eggs certified by a third-party.
Cage Free:From the USDA, “This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle.”
Free Range or Free Roaming: This term implies that the birds were raised outdoors and free to roam. However, the USDA only defines the term for poultry meat; use of the term for eggs is not defined or regulated. (Note that USDA’s definition of free range poultry meat requires producers to give birds access to the outdoors, though this can be for as little as five minutes per day.)
Natural:This term is not defined or regulated for eggs, so producers can use it however they please.
Raised without Antibiotics or No Antibiotics Administered: These terms can be used if the eggs were produced by hens that never received antibiotics. However, while the USDA has defined these terms, it doesn’t actually regulate their use – so it’s up to producers to use the terms honestly.
No Hormones:Producers are prohibited from administering hormones to poultry, so this term is meaningless.
Organic: USDA’s National Organic Program label ensures that eggs come from cage free hens that can roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors. The hens must be raised without antibiotics and must be fed organic feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers. This term is independently verified.
Pasture-raised:This term implies that hens were raised outdoors – but the USDA has not developed a definition for the term and does not regulate its use.
Vegetarian Feed: Indicates that the eggs came from hens raised on all-vegetarian feed. (Conventional chicken feed can include animal byproducts such as feather meal, chicken litter, pork and cattle byproducts.) Note that pasture-raised chickens might not be “vegetarian” since they are able to forage for worms and bugs.
Animal Welfare Approved- The AWA 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 four 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 certified by this label are kept cage free, but not necessarily outdoors. Certified Humane 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). Forced molting (reducing feed to increase egg production) is not allowed, and antibiotics can be used only to treat sick hens.
American Humane Certified - 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 by starvation.
United Egg Producers Certified - United Egg Producers (UEP) is the largest US trade association for industrial egg producers. The UEP-Certified label, which includes standards for caged and cage-free layers, is widely regarded as insufficiently strict; the standards permit hens to have as little as 67 square inches of space, which is less than three quarters of a letter-size sheet of paper (93.5 square inches).