“It's a bizarre claim, because chickens are not vegetarian,” says Shapiro. “With cattle, they're herbivores, but chickens are insectivores.” Wild chickens (whether that’s feral birds or close relatives) eat whatever they can find, and get a large amount of protein and calories from insects. So vegetarian-fed seems like a weird thing to advertise, until you think about human vegetarians. We’re omnivores, but following a vegetarian diet usually ensures we eat less-objectionable stuff. Same with chickens, which are sometimes fed ground-up... chicken meat. Gross.
It’s illegal to give hormones to egg-laying chickens in this country. They’re all hormone-free. So sure, you can trust a carton with this label; it’s not technically lying. But it’s not telling you anything you don’t already know.
Antibiotics are used in excess to allow animals to survive in conditions that would normally kill them; it’s cheaper to doctor an animal’s food with medicine than it is to upgrade your farm to have higher standards. But antibiotic use is associated with the rise of “superbugs,” wherein bacteria get stronger and stronger to defeat the drugs we administer, leading us to use more drugs, leading the bacteria to get even stronger. It’s a very, very dangerous cycle.
That said, nobody’s checking up on “antibiotic-free” either, and antibiotics aren’t nearly as commonly used for egg-laying chickens as they are for, say, beef and pork (or chickens raised for meat). It’s an important label to know about, but not necessarily for eggs.
The biggest label: United Egg Producers Certified
Easily the most popular label you’ll find on American eggs (the vast majority of eggs found in US supermarkets; we don’t really import very many eggs) is United Egg Producers Certified. The label looks like a black semicircle, flat side down, with a big green check-mark in the middle. Unfortunately, this is a lousy label, says Shapiro. “It’s on probably 9 out of 10 egg cartons in the country. I mean, this is an effort to create the illusion for consumers that the animals are being cared for, but in reality the standard is so anemic that it allows unconscionable animal abuse.”
The UEP label is, admittedly, a step up from no label at all, but the victories won by that label are pretty much garbage. The guidelines allow for birds to be caged in a minimum of 67 square inches, which Shapiro notes is less than the size of an iPad. Birds’ beaks can be cut off, a practice designed to stop the animals from injuring themselves or other birds but which compounds an already difficult existence by making it difficult to eat or drink.
These are, basically, horrible supermarket eggs.