The Complete Guide to Egg Carton Labels (and What They Really Mean)

brown eggs in a carton with chickens in the background

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Finding eggs that are safe, nutritious and humanely raised can be a challenge for many people, and the labels on egg cartons certainly don’t help. Sometimes they can even be deceptive…

And while organic standards are far from perfect, many people buy organic eggs from the grocery store, thinking that the organic label means they come from happier, healthier hens, right?

Wrong.

The Dirty Secret About “Organic” Egg Production

Contrary to what you might think about how “organic” food is produced, even certified organic eggs can come from hens living in inhumane, factory conditions—making their eggs both a nutritionally and ethically inferior product.

cage free chickens crowded in a barn
Photo: Cornucopia Institute

The photo to the right is just one shocking example of conditions that many “organic” chickens must endure, details of which are laid out in a damning report by The Cornucopia Institute called Scrambled Eggs: Separating Factory Farm Egg Production from Authentic Organic Agriculture.

The report is the result of two years of research where the Institute visited over 15% of the certified organic egg farms in the United States, and surveyed all name-brand and private-label industry marketers.

The report’s findings demonstrated a huge difference between the best-practice husbandry exhibited by many small and medium-sized organic egg and chicken producers, and the bare-minimum standards followed by many industrial-scale operations.

According to the Cornucopia Institute:

“Imagine 80,000 laying hens in a single building, crowded in confinement conditions, on “farms” with hundreds of thousands or a million birds. Is that organic?

How about a tiny enclosed concrete porch, accessible by only 3%-5% of the tens of thousands of birds inside a henhouse. Does that pass as outdoor access as required by federal organic law?

Industrial-scale egg producers are gaming the system, producing “organic” eggs in huge factory farms, crowding tens of thousands of chickens in two-story buildings with small porches passing as “outdoor access.”

These industrial-scale producers, with their livestock management shortcuts, are placing family-scale organic farmers at a competitive disadvantage in the marketplace. Some pasture-based organic farmers have already been driven out of the organic egg business.”

What Do the Labels on Eggs Mean?

So, if you can’t even trust certified organic eggs (or chicken) anymore, how do you know what kind of eggs are safe, nutritious and humane? The labels on egg cartons can be confusing and misleading. Here is what some of them mean: (Also see infographic at the end of this article.)

Grades AA, A and B Eggs

According to the US Poultry & Egg Association, eggs are graded by their appearance and quality. Grade AA is the best, and they have “thick, firm whites and high, round yolks” plus strong shells. Grade A is almost the same, but with “reasonably” firm whites instead. These are the ones most commonly sold in grocery stores.

Finally, Grade B eggs have “thin whites and wider yolks.” The shells on Grade B eggs aren’t cracked, but they may be stained or mottled, making these eggs great for baking and other recipes that don’t rely on the eggs’ appearance.

These grades say nothing about how the egg was produced, the conditions the hens live in, or the nutritional value of the egg.

Pasteurized Eggs

Pasteurizing eggs in their shells is achieved through a patented technique that uses water baths to sterilize the egg without cooking it. Pasteurized eggs have been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce the risk of foodborne illness. There is a definite flavor loss with pasteurized eggs, but they might be worth it if you’re worried about feeding raw eggs to children, pregnant women or sick people.

After pasteurization, the eggs are coated with food-grade wax to maintain freshness and prevent environmental contamination and stamped with a blue or red “P” in a circle, to distinguish them from unpasteurized eggs.

(Pasteurized eggs are different than pasture-raised eggs, described below. Don’t confuse them!)

Battery (Caged) Eggs

About 72% of all the eggs produced in the United States are laid by hens that spend their lives in a cage so small that they can’t spread their wings. These “battery cages” are stacked in long rows inside enormous barns that usually house tens of thousands of birds. The United Egg Producers’ guidelines for cage production systems requires a minimum of 67 square inches per hen, which is smaller than a 8.5 inch by 11 inch sheet of paper. The State of California requires 144 inches of space, which is 1 foot (12 inches) by 1 foot of space.

Commercial egg producers use this method because it is economical and keeps egg prices low. But many animal welfare advocates believe these battery cages are incredibly cruel and inhumane. The birds never go outside, are unable to spread their wings, scratch, perch or nest, and are essentially unable to move for their entire lives.

Unless the egg carton specifically states that the eggs are from “cage free,” “free range,” “organic” or “pasture-raised” hens, this is the type of egg you are buying.

“Farm-Fresh” or “All Natural” Eggs

These terms are marketing mumbo jumbo, and don’t actually tell you anything about the eggs you are buying. “Farm Fresh” on a carton simply means you’re getting eggs from a hen who lived on a commercial farm. And all eggs are “natural.”

No Hormones

This label, like “Farm Fresh” and “All-Natural,” is more marketing mumbo jumbo. No egg-laying hens in the US receive hormones or hormone injections, which means labels like “Hormone-Free” or “No Hormones” could technically be put on every egg carton in the store. 

No Antibiotics

This is a somewhat misleading label, because antibiotics are rarely used in the egg industry. Chickens that are raised for their meat, on the other hand, do commonly get antibiotics to fend off disease and increase their growth.

Vegetarian Fed Eggs

The “Vegetarian Diet” or “Vegetarian Fed” label is perhaps the most confounding because chickens are not actually vegetarian. They’re omnivores that, in the wild, get most of their protein from worms, insects and small animals like lizards, frogs and mice. Hens that are fed a “vegetarian diet” of corn, soy and other grains cannot get enough methionine—an essential amino acid which is abundant in animal protein, and necessary for poultry growth and feathering.

When chickens are subjected to a purely vegetarian diet, they can become very ill and even start pecking at each other. So farmer’s raising vegetarian chickens have to supplement their diets with synthetic methionine. Since methionine supplements are synthesized in a lab, they’re heavily regulated, and limited in their use, especially on organic farms. Farmers and scientists are still experimenting with supplement options for a “Vegetarian Diet” that can keep chickens healthy, since they are not inherently vegetarian. 

Omega-3 Enhanced Eggs

Omega-3 enhanced (or omega-3 fortified) eggs come from hens given feed that contains significant amounts of flaxseed, which is high in the omega-3 fatty acid ALA. Most omega-3 enhanced hens live out their lives in battery cages.

Omega-3 eggs are unregulated, and the amounts of omega-3 fatty acids in fortified eggs can vary widely. They should not be considered a reliable source of Omega-3 in your diet.

“Cage Free” Eggs

large poultry warehouse
Chickens confined in this building, which houses young chickens, They have no outdoor access whatsoever. Photo by The Cornucopia Institute.

“Cage-free” is a loose, unregulated term where eggs could be from chickens confined to a barn, or from chickens with access to outdoor space. There is a big difference between the two! Cage-free egg producers are not audited by third-party inspectors, unless they are also Certified Organic.

Many people buy “cage-free” eggs believing that the hens that lay them have access to outdoor pasture, but the reality is that these chickens usually live inside dark sheds. They are free to roam around within the enclosed space and to stretch and spread their wings—which is a significant improvement over battery cage conditions—but they don’t typically have access to the outdoors.

As with battery cage farming, forced molting (starving hens to produce more eggs) and beak trimming (removal of a portion of the beak, usually with a heated blade) are common practices, except on organic farms.

“Free Range” Eggs

thousands of chickens crowded in a barn
Photo: Cornucopia Institute

“Free-range” doesn’t necessarily mean pasture-raised any more than “cage free” does. Free-range eggs come from hens that have “continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle,” according to the USDA, but there is no regulation as to how long they need to be outside, how much room should be given, or about any of the standards that would make them “free-range.” Free range birds can still be given antibiotics, arsenic, and food from GMO crops, unless they are also Certified Organic.

“Free range” encompasses everything from a few small doors leading to an unappealing screened-in porch to barns with multiple large openings and several acres for hens to forage. But according to the Cornucopia Institute, the vast majority of free-range chickens in commercial egg facilities never actually go outside, so in most cases, “free-range” means the same thing as “cage-free.” They may live in overcrowded conditions, and may or may not have access to nests and perches. In other words, they are probably not what you thought they were.

The photo at the top of the article is an example of the conditions that qualify as “cage-free” or “free-range” for both egg-layers and meat birds.

Certified Organic Eggs

Certified Organic eggs come from antibiotic-free hens that have “access” to outdoor areas and are fed an organic diet, though some beak trimming is allowed. The conditions in which organic eggs are laid are verified by third parties, which reduces the likelihood of fraudulent labeling.

However, until consumers demand stricter standards for organic eggs and chicken, “access to the outdoors” can technically mean millions of birds crowded into a shed with access to one tiny, concrete-floored porch (like the “free range” image above). So it’s a good idea to do a little investigating into your brand of eggs, or use the Organic Egg Brand Scorecard to help you choose a healthier, more humane egg!

Pasture Raised Eggs

chickens on pasture - Skagit River Ranch of Washington
Left to their own devices, chickens prefer to hang out in lush, green pastures rather than cramped, steel cages (these are from Skagit River Ranch of Washington).

In terms of replicating chickens’ natural environment and producing maximum nutrition, pasture-raised is the gold standard. Pasture-raised birds spend most of their life outdoors, plus access to a barn for shelter. Most are able to eat a diet of worms, insects and grass, along with corn feed (which may or may not be organic).

Free-range eggs from hens raised on grassy pastures are more nutritious than those obtained from cage-free, confinement operations or battery cages. However, free-range producers are not audited by third parties unless the eggs are also certified organic.

The label “Pasture-Raised” is also unregulated and without uniform standards, so it’s a good idea to look for additional certifications from independent agencies like Certified Humane or Animal Welfare, which have outlined specific definitions for the term, or use the Organic Egg Brand Scorecard.

(Remember: Pasteurized eggs are not the same as pasture-raised eggs. Be sure not to confuse them!)

Certified Humane/Animal Welfare Approved Eggs

There are a few certifying agencies that seek to help consumers determine if the hens they get eggs from are treated humanely. Look for them on any carton that also says, “Organic” or “Pasture Raised.”

Animal Welfare Approved hens live in cage-free environments with real access to outdoor pasture. They are able to move freely, socialize, forage, and engage in natural, health-promoting behaviors. Beak trimming and forced molting are prohibited.

Certified Humane pasture-raised eggs require 2.5 acres for every 1,000 birds (108 square feet per bird). According to its standards, “The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators, or for up to two weeks out of the year due only to very inclement weather.”

The helpful infographic at the end of this article visually breaks down which labels mean what.

Which Eggs Should I Buy?

The first clue to a quality egg is price. As usual, you get what you pay for. If you buy the cheapest supermarket eggs—even the cheapest organic eggs—you are not only missing out on the valuable nutrients eggs should contain, you are also supporting an industrial production system that treats animals cruelly and makes more sustainable, small-scale egg production difficult.

The environmentally sustainable and humane choice is to support small, local farmers raising hens on pasture. Not only is this better for the earth, the hens and the farmers, but the taste of a fresh, pasture-raised egg really can’t be beat.

The Benefits of Pasture Raised Eggs

If you’ve never eaten an egg from a hen raised on sunshine, bugs and grass, then you are in for quite a treat. Deep orange, gooey yolks stand up tall within their thick, milky whites unlike any conventional egg you’ve ever seen.

Their color, flavor and texture are made distinctive by high amounts of Vitamin A, D, E, K2, B-12, folate, riboflavin, zinc, calcium, beta carotene, choline, and tons of omega 3 fatty acids, including DHA, EPA, ALA, and Arachadonic Acid. A pasture-raised egg is a true superfood.

Second only to the lactalbumin protein in human mother’s milk, eggs have the highest quality protein of any food. In addition to being an affordable, extremely dense source of nutrition, eggs can be prepared in a variety of tasty ways. This is especially true of a pasture-raised egg.

Mother Earth News conducted an egg testing project in 2007, and found that eggs produced by truly free-ranging hens were far superior to those produced by battery cage hens. The study involved 14 flocks across the United States whose eggs were tested by an accredited Portland, Oregon, laboratory.

They found that the benefits of pasture raised eggs include:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  • 7 times more beta carotene

They also found that eggs from hens raised outdoors on pasture have from three to six times more vitamin D than eggs from hens raised in confinement. Pasture-raised hens are exposed to direct sunlight, which their bodies convert to vitamin D and then pass on to their eggs. Eating just two of these eggs will give you from 63-126% of the recommended daily intake of vitamin D!

Note that this benefit comes only from hens that are free to graze fresh greens, eat bugs, and bask in the sun. 99% of the eggs sold in the supermarket do not meet this criteria.

Even though the label says that the eggs are “certified organic” or come from “cage free” or “free range” hens, or from hens fed an “all-vegetarian” diet (Remember: chickens are NOT vegetarians!), this is no guarantee that the hens had access to the outdoors or pasture—which makes all the difference.

In addition to the Mother Earth News research findings, there have been a number of other studies showing that pasture-raised eggs are healthier than those produced by confinement-raised hens. Findings include the following:

  • Pasture-raised eggs contain 70% more vitamin B12 and 50% more folic acid (British Journal of Nutrition, 1974).
  • Greek pastured eggs contain 13 times more omega-3s than U.S. commercial eggs (Simopoulos, The Omega Diet, 1988).
  • Pasture-raised eggs are higher in vitamin E and omega-3s than those obtained from battery-cage hens (Animal Feed Science and Technology, 1998).
  • Pasture-raised eggs are 10% lower in fat, 34% lower in cholesterol, contain 40% more vitamin A, and are 4 times higher in omega-3s than standard U.S. battery-cage eggs, and pasture-raised chicken meat has 21% less fat, 30% less saturated fat, and 50% more vitamin A than that of caged chickens (Gorski, Pennsylvania State University, 1999).
  • Pasture-raised eggs have three times more omega-3s and are 220% higher in vitamin E and 62% higher in vitamin A than eggs obtained from battery cage hens (Karsten, Pennsylvania State University, 2003).

Long and Alterman (2007) attribute the dramatic differences in nutritional content to the fact that pasture-raised hens consume a more natural, omnivorous diet that includes seeds, worms, insects, and green plants, and they get a lot of sunshine.

Factory farm birds—both conventional and organic—never get to see the outdoors, let alone get to forage for their natural diet. Instead they are fed the cheapest possible mixture of corn, soy and/or cottonseed meals, with all kinds of byproducts and additives, including sometimes arsenic.

So for the best eggs you can get, look for eggs from “pasture-raised” hens that are only supplementally fed with organic grains. You are most likely to find these superior eggs at farmer’s markets or natural food stores. Better yet, purchase them directly from your local farmer, or raise a few chickens yourself. The benefits of pasture raised eggs can’t be beat!

In the end, all of this is just one more reminder that while certifications and labels may be useful tools, there is no substitute for having a real relationship with your local farmer(s) and knowing where your food comes from.

Resources

egg label infographic

Updated June 10, 2021

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