What the Hell Do All Those Phrases on Your Carton of Eggs Mean?
The humble egg is a staple in most homes; it’s easy to cook, easy to find, and, best of all, easy on the bank account. But maybe you’ve wondered what’s actually different about the standard grocery store variety and those boasting vague promises, like “free-roaming.”
Labels on egg cartons do a decent job of explaining which kind of eggs you’re getting, but they can be both unintentionally obscure and willfully misleading. Some labels sound great and mean absolutely nothing, and others sound like nonsense but have legitimate regulatory muscle behind them.
So we called up Paul Shapiro, Vice President of Farm Animal Protection for the Humane Society of the United States, the US’s largest animal welfare group, to walk us through them.
All natural and farm fresh
“Completely meaningless,” says Shapiro. These are marketing terms; even if they did have an unambiguous meaning in common usage English, which they don’t, they have absolutely no regulatory agency checking them out. Anyone can legally stamp these nice-sounding words on their label, and they tell you absolutely nothing about the history of the product you’re buying.
So, this is a tricky one. “The real demarcation line in this industry is whether they're in cages or in cage-free systems,” says Shapiro. Cage-free doesn’t mean cruelty-free; chickens that are technically cage-free can have their beaks chopped off, can be crammed into a huge flock in a small space, can have no access to the outside, and can have all kinds of other nasty qualities. But no matter what, says Shapiro, cage-free is better than caged.
On the other hand! There is absolutely no regulation over the use of the phrase, meaning that anyone can technically say their chickens are cage-free. Now, Shapiro doesn’t think that any major producers would flat-out lie about that, but they certainly could provide a system that, while technically without cages, is unhygienic, cramped, dangerous, and miserable, and slap a label on the carton saying “cage-free.” In theory, good, but in practice, you’ll want this label to be augmented with something else.
Free-range or pasture-raised
This is very similar to cage-free, in that the idea is very nice but that nobody is around to actually make sure the spirit of the label is borne out in practice. Free-range augments cage-free by adding “access to outdoor space,” and pasture-raised implies that the chickens spend the majority of their time outside. “Access” is a lousy word here. “It doesn't specify how much space they have, how often they have access to the outdoors, what the quality of that access is,” says Shapiro. You could open a large window into an airshaft once a week for 10 minutes and say your birds have “access” to the outdoors.
“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.
The easiest to find: USDA Organic
This one’s easy: Certified USDA Organic. “Organic” is a legal term, not an adjective; anything claiming to be organic has to follow specific rules set out by the United States Department of Agriculture and pass inspections held to ensure no lying is going on. Rules for different agricultural products differ, though following general themes of sustainability.
Organic is a mixed bag, in terms of eggs. All organic eggs are required to be cage-free, which is very important. They also are required to have that great “outdoor access,” though again, that doesn’t tell you much. Organic egg-laying hens have a diet that is necessarily organic, meaning it contains no genetically modified or pesticide-grown food. Organic eggs are antibiotic-free by law.
The downside is that the regulations aren’t that tough, really; beak-cutting is allowed, and the amount of space the chickens get is highly fudge-able. On the other hand, this regulation has the weight of the USDA behind it, which is great; you can’t screw around with the USDA. The laws may not be great, but you can be sure that at least they’re followed.
The best one: Animal Welfare Approved
If you can find eggs stamped with an Animal Welfare Approved label, you’re in good. That means flock size is limited to only 500 birds, and the birds not only have to be cage-free but also have to have significant space and access to an outdoor area where they can forage. Beak cutting is prohibited. No animal byproducts are allowed to show up in chicken feed. And this is an actual regulatory agency that sends out inspectors.
Decent, for sure: American Humane Certified and Food Alliance Certified
Certified Humane, American Humane Certified, and Food Alliance Certified are all really quite good, similar to Animal Welfare Approved except that they allow beak-cutting. You can be sure that eggs with these labels are cage-free, with outdoor access and decent feed. Not ideal, but a really good, quick way to tell that you’re not getting garbage eggs.
No matter what, this is not a high-cost item. A dozen of the cheapest, crappiest eggs, from chickens in the worst possible conditions, might cost two dollars for a dozen. A dozen beautiful eggs, laid by happy chickens roaming around a pasture and certified by an independent third-party auditor, might cost, what, five dollars? Sure, that’s more than twice as much, but it’s also… three dollars more. Three dollars. Just pay the three dollars. It’ll be worth it.
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Dan Nosowitz is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys his eggs poached. Follow him @dannosowitz.