Free range. Organic. Cage Free. Omega-3. Farm Fresh. All Natural.
The labels on egg cartons are sometimes not all they’re cracked up to be. What do all these terms mean? If you don’t have your own chickens, how can you know you’re getting eggs from humanely treated hens?
A label you won’t see is battery. About 98% of the eggs produced in North America are from battery hens, who “live” in horrific conditions: allotted a space no bigger than their bodies in tight quarters with other hens, they are force-molted through starvation to keep up egg production. Their beaks are trimmed with a hot wire to prevent pecking. The birds are handled with no concern for their lives or safety, and their bones are broken in handling. Many live their lives not even able to flap their wings. They die from starvation if they get stuck in their cages, and often dead hens are not discovered and remain in the cage until after they have decomposed. To learn more about the conditions in battery-cage facilities, click here or here.
So, what’s a better option, and what do all those labels on the more expensive eggs mean anyway?
Here’s the skinny on all the labels. Truthfully, many don’t hold a lot of meaning in terms of animal welfare, so investigate before you buy.
Find a pdf summary of this information in table format here: Egg Carton Labels.
Farm fresh: This term is largely meaningless, and hens are battery kept.
All natural: This term is largely meaningless, and hens are battery kept.
Omega-3 Enhanced: This means the chickens were fed large amounts of food containing omega-3 fatty acids, such as flaxseed, which are expressed in the egg. The hens are mostly battery-cage hens. A better alternative to omega-3 enhanced eggs is to simply eat more foods with these fats, since eggs are not a great source.
Cage-Free or Free-Run: These terms apply to chickens who are not kept in battery cages. They live in henhouses with free access to the enclosed space but do not get outdoors. They are force-molted and treated like battery hens. These facilities are not inspected to assure conditions are as advertised.
Free-Range: These hens are house in conditions similar to those in cage-free or free-run environments, with the exception that they have access to the outdoors. Sometimes this consists of a small door on the henhouse that may or may not be kept open. These facilities are not inspected to assure conditions are as advertised.
Pasteurized: These eggs have been processed to eliminate salmonella bacteria. They have been heated very quickly to a very high temperature to kill bacteria and present less of a risk if eaten raw.
Certified Organic: These hens get an organic diet and have access to the outdoors and vegetation. Their beaks may be trimmed and they may be force molted. Organic eggs must be certified by inspectors. However, the food advocacy group Cornucopia Institute recently found that an “organic” egg-production facilities are using battery production methods. Read their report here.
Animal Welfare Approved: These hens are raised humanely indoors and are cage free. They are not force molted, and beak trimming is very limited. This is the highest standard available, but these eggs are not sold in stores. They are inspected by the Animal Welfare Institute. Find more information here.
American Humane Certified: These birds have more room than battery-cage hens (the size of a piece of legal-sized paper) and they are not force molted, but their beaks may still be trimmed, and studies show that this method of caging is still detrimental to health. These facilities are inspected by a third-party verifying agency.
United Egg Producers Certified: This means the hens have access to fresh food and water. They may be battery kept and force molted, and their beaks may be trimmed. More info on UEP here.
Pastured: The hens that lay these eggs are kept on pasture (or in backyards) and are not confined. They have access to bugs, worms, and other natural foods, and they also eat grains. For more information on pastured eggs, click here. These eggs have more omega-3 fatty acids and higher concentrations of certain vitamins.
As you buy eggs, be aware that commercial egg producers slaughter all male chicks (50% of the hatch) shortly after they hatch. Male chicks are of no use to the egg industry.
So, there you have it. If you don’t have your own chickens, you can make a wiser decision about where your eggs come from.
The Humane Society of the United States. “Egg Carton Labels.” The Humane Society of the United States. Posted Nov. 9, 2009. www.humanesociety.org/issues/confinement_farm/facts/guide_egg_labels.html
Copley, Jennifer. “Egg Labels–Free Range, Organic, and Omega-3.” Suite 101.com. Posted Jan. 8 2010. www.suite101.com/content/egg-labels-free-range-organic-and-omega3-a186883.
Butler, Kiera. “Is Your Favorite Organic Egg Brand a Factory Farm in Disguise?” Motherjones.com. Posted Oct. 4, 2010. http://motherjones.com/blue-marble/2010/09/eggs-salmonella-cage-free.