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Many egg labels refer to the way the chickens were fed or raised, and may mislead consumers. The best animal-welfare standards for laying hens give the birds what they need to engage in natural behavior—such as perching and foraging—and provide adequate light, space, and fresh air. “Certain terms seem to imply that the chickens are raised under such conditions, but that’s not what they mean at all,” Vallaeys says.
Here’s how to separate the reality from the hype on egg cartons.
- American Humane Certified and Certified Humane. On their own, these labels mean that the eggs came from chickens that were raised in better conditions than conventional laying hens. For example, the hens can't be kept in cages, although in some cases they may still be raised in confined conditions, and outdoor access isn't required. Even better is when they accompany the claims “free-range” or "pasture-raised” (see below), which means that the chickens must be able to go outdoors.
Cage-free. The chickens weren’t raised in a cage, Vallaeys says, but they may still be packed into a building with tens of thousands of other birds with little ability to roam and peck. If the egg carton is also labeled American Humane Certified, Certified Humane, or carries the USDA Grade shield, it means this claim is verified.
Farm-fresh. Since all eggs come from farms, Vallaeys points out, this labeling claim has no value. “The ‘farm’ can be a huge building where the chickens are packed into a bunch of cages,” she says. The term “fresh” also carries no weight, because it generally means the product hasn’t been frozen. “While you may want to know that when buying meat or poultry, no one is freezing eggs,” Vallaeys says.
Free-range. This is potentially one of the most misleading terms on an egg carton. The birds can't be kept in cages and must have access to an outdoor area, but they can still be housed in crowded conditions, and the outdoor area can be as small as a tiny porch. Or the area may be accessible only by a single door, which the vast majority of chickens can’t reach, Vallaeys says. However, if you also see the American Humane Certified or Certified Humane seal alongside this claim, it verifies that the birds were actually able to access a spacious outdoor run.
Natural. “People often mistake ‘natural’ for ‘organic,’ ” Vallaeys says. But the two terms are very different. “ 'Natural' has no clearly meaning on egg labels, while eggs labeled 'organic' [see below] must meet a set of stringent criteria,” she says. “As far as egg producers are concerned, all eggs are natural."
No Added Hormones. By law, chickens that produce eggs and those that are sold for meat can't be given hormones, so eggs with this claim on the package label are no different than eggs sold without this claim.
Pasture-raised. This label is one of the best for chicken welfare, Vallaeys explains, especially if accompanied by the American Humane Certified or Certified Humane seal, which verifies that specific standards were met. It requires that chickens have access to lots of pasture with enough space for them to roam, flap their wings, and peck for bugs. However, if you see "pasture-raised" on a package without an accompanying verification seal, buyer beware, Vallaeys says.
United Egg Producers Certified. This organization is a trade group for egg producers, and its standards are little better than the way conventional laying hens are raised, according to Vallaeys, but not by much. “There's an upper limit for ammonia levels in the air at 25 parts per million," she says, "which is better than no upper limit, but is still pretty high and certainly doesn't qualify as 'fresh air.' " The guidelines also allow hens to be confined in crowded cages without natural light, fresh air, or space to move around. White laying hens (one type of chicken), for example, can be kept in a cage with at least 8.2 x 8.2 inches of space and the ability to stand upright. "That’s a space smaller than a sheet of paper, and it provides no space for the chicken to move or even stretch her wings,” Vallaeys says.
USDA Organic. This indicates the eggs were laid by cage-free hens raised on organic feed and
not given antibiotics (antibiotics are never allowed on organic farms). Note, though, that while the organic standards require outdoor access for all animals on organic farms, some certifying agencies interpret a small concrete porch to meet this requirement. So if you’re looking for organic eggs from hens that were able to go outdoors, don’t rely only on the organic seal alone. Look for a “free-range” or “pasture-raised” claim accompanied by the American Humane Certified or Certified Humane seal.