Understanding egg cartons

understanding egg cartons

Soft-boiled eggs are my personal version of “fast food.” I throw a couple in my purse every morning, put them in the fridge when I get to work, and later pull them out when I need a nutritious and satiating snack. They’ve only cracked once while in transit; that was an awkward subway ride. But at least I had more personal space than usual…

This won’t come as a surprise, but I am extremely picky about my eggs. In fact, each weekend, I travel all the way across the city to get a couple dozen fresh eggs from a co-op that carries true pasture-raised eggs from a great little family-owned farm outside of the city.

Why do I go so out of my way to get these eggs when there are a handful of grocery stores just a few blocks away from my home? Compared to commercially-produced eggs, eggs from pasture-raised hens have been shown to contain:

  • 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

These dramatically differing nutrient levels are most likely the result of the differences in diet between pastured hens and commercially farmed hens, as well as the overall heath of the hens (to learn more, see In defense of REAL eggs (yolks and all)).

Nowadays, you can walk into just about any grocery store and walk away with what you think are real eggs, eggs from healthy, happy hens, since egg cartons are plastered with terms like “cage-free,” “natural,” and “free-range.”

But what exactly do these terms mean?

  • “Cage-Free”: Hens are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.
  • “Certified Organic”: Hens are uncaged inside barns, and are required to have outdoor access. However, the amount (space-wise), duration, and quality of outdoor access is not defined. Hens are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
  • “Free-Range” or “Free-Roaming”: The USDA has defined the terms of “free-range” for some poultry products, but there are no standards regarding “free-range” egg production. Free-range hens are typically uncaged inside barns and have some outdoor access. Again, the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access is not defined. Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting. This is very important: there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed, and there is no third-party auditing. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. (Kind of sounds like anything goes, huh?)
  • “Certified Humane” (a program of Humane Farm Animal Care): Hens are not caged, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stock density (the number of hens within a given area), and number of perches and nesting boxes available for the hens. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
  • “Animal Welfare Approved” (a program of the Animal Welfare Institute): The birds are cage-free and continuous outdoor perching access is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Birds must be allowed to molt naturally and beak cutting is prohibited. These are the highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program.
  • “American Humane Certified” (a program of the American Humane Association): Hens may be caged or cage-free. Hens that are confined in these so-called “furnished cages” have about the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper (“humane certified,” eh?). These cages are detrimental to animal welfare, and they are opposed by nearly every major US and EU animal welfare group. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
  • “Food Alliance Certified” (a program of the Food Alliance): The birds are cage-free and access to outdoors or natural daylight is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Starvation-based molting is prohibited. Beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance.
  • “United Egg Producers Certified” (a program of the United Egg Producers): The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. Hens laying these eggs have 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren battery cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.
  • “Vegetarian-Fed”: These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions.
  • “Natural”: This term has no relevance to animal welfare. It simply means that nothing was added to the egg, such as flavorings, brines or coloring.
  • “Omega-3 Enriched”: Hens are fed a diet enriched with omega-3s. However, they are typically poor-quality sources of omega-3 fats that are already oxidized. Interestingly, omega-3 eggs have been shown to be far more perishable than non-omega-3 eggs. This term has no relevance to animal welfare.
  • “No added hormones”: This term is really just a marketing tactic as all farmers are legally prohibited from giving hormones to chickens. If present on a label, this term must be followed by a statement that says “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones” (or something along those lines).

Some of these are pretty misleading, huh?

The following websites can help you find true pasture-raised eggs in your area:

The Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard is also a great resource to help ensure you are purchasing quality, humanely-raised, pastured eggs.

To read more about the health benefits of eggs and egg production, see In defense of REAL eggs (yolks and all).

Source: The Humane Society of the United States, Egg Carton Labels

           

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11 Responses to Understanding egg cartons

  1. ChrissY says:

    “Vegetarian fed” isn’t the best diet for chicken. Chickens are not vegetarians. In order to be 100% vegetarian-fed, they must be prevented access to their natural diet, which includes insects, worms and virtually any protein source they can get their beaks on. Soy-free, pastured eggs are the healthiest eggs.

  2. Nadia says:

    Thanks for the clarification, Chrissy. I also (clearly!) advocate for pastured eggs.

  3. Sarah says:

    A farmers wife recently told me that ‘pastured’ is a marketing ploy and chcikens that are free-range produce bitter eggs when they eat weeds or a “stink bug”. She also said that cows need a high protein feed in order to produce milk, otherwise you’d be lucky to get a bucketful. Any thoughts

  4. Diana says:

    I’ve been to several stores looking for eggs with the “Animal Welfare Approved” label but to no avail. The other day I checked out Costco and found eggs labeled as “American Certified Humane.” They are also labeled with the following: Certified Organic Feed, Cage-Free, USDA Grade AA.

    Additionally, the certifiedhumane.org website (“Meets the Humane Farm Animal Care program standards, which includes nutrious diet without antibiotics or hormones, animals raised with shelter, resting areas, sufficient space and the ability to engage in natural behaviours”) includes Kirkland Signature Organic Eggs in the list of humane egg sources.

    So although these eggs are labeled as being American Certified Humane, would they be considered equivalent to those that are labeled Animal Welfare Approved since they are cage-free? Or are there other welfare standards that are not being met?

  5. Nadia says:

    Hi, Diana! I explain the difference above – I know there are a lot of terms and it is super confusing! “American Certified Humane” is actually really misleading since the hens may be cage-free or caged. But since the eggs you saw are also labeled as cage-free, they are cage-free. However, the hens likely do not have nearly as much mobility as those whose eggs are labeled as “Animal Welfare Approved,” which really is the strictest standard (refer to the post). If they were up to these standards, they would likely be labeled as such.

    I will tell you that “cage-free” does not mean very much to me, and after reading the above I’m sure you see why. If I unable to find pasture-raised eggs, I would look for the “Animal Welfare Approved” label. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to check out the links at the bottom of the post to see if you can find pasture-raised eggs in your area – they simply are the best (and much easier to find than you may think).

  6. BB says:

    Thank you for your blog and for this post.

    We have purchased the Costco Organic American Humane Certified eggs ever since they began offering them. About a month ago, I cracked a few eggs for egg sandwiches for myself and my husband. I was surprised at how thin the shell of the first egg was, and the egg’s appearance in the pan (smallish, pale yolk, sort of runny). I thought it was a fluke, but the subsequent eggs proved to be the same lower quality. These really looked and felt like the battery eggs you get for a dollar a dozen.

    I took the package out of he refrigerator to verify that we had purchased the right eggs and that the label hadn’t changed. Sure enough, these were Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic eggs, 24ct., in the recycled plastic carton, just as we’d always bought, only now the American Humane Certified label was nowhere to be found!

    These eggs are clearly inferior. I’m nine months pregnant and eggs are about the only animal protein I can stomach. I have cracked or peeled 2-4± eggs nearly every single day for the past six months or more, and there is a distinct difference with these eggs from the organic humane certified eggs Costco was selling six months or a year ago.

    I felt hoodwinked. If I remember correctly, Costco really trumpeted their Humane Certified products in their Costco Connection (free monthly magazine they send members) when they debuted.
    I stopped buying them and switched to another brand from a local grocery chain that is humane certified etc., and the eggs are great quality.

    A week ago my husband went to Costco and picked up another carton of their formerly humane certified labeled eggs (I hadn’t had a chance to tell him we weren’t buying their eggs anymore) and it’s the same thing. I reached in the package the other day to get an egg and my finger went right through the shell. I’m beginning to wonder how Costco defines organic, because even before the ‘humane’ label came out on any egg brand, organic eggs had hard shells and bright yolks.

    For what it’s worth, I am in Texas and the date on the package says the eggs are good through October 25, 2013.

    If you’ve bought Costco Kirkland Signature Organic eggs in the past month, are your Costco Kirkland Signature Organic eggs still labeled as Humane Certified on the package? Did they just do a bunch of publicity about having humane certified eggs to get people to feel good about buying eggs from a warehouse, and then just quietly do away with it a year or less later?

  7. Danita says:

    As a side note, if you’re trying to find eggs that are produced by hens with a truly natural diet, you can occasionally find eggs that are labeled as being produced by hens given a soy and grain-free diet. Our local whole foods store carries eggs from one farm that are free-range chickens fed an organic, soy and grain-free diet. They’re not certified organic, but as a very small local farm, I don’t really expect them to be. I don’t know what regulation is in place regarding claims about foods given or not given in chicken’s diets, but I think I trust these eggs the best so far. However, if you have additional insight about small farms who are not certified organic but otherwise seem very reputable, I would love to know!

  8. Sciquest says:

    Costco Van Nuys is currently selling USDA Organic, cage-free eggs that have no 3rd party humane certification label on them, but the shelf tag says “CERTIFIED HUMANE.” A store manager insisted that the shelf tag is never wrong, so I’ll have to inquire with corporate.

  9. teri O says:

    I started buying Costco/Kirkland eggs because the label said “cage free” and “Certified Humane”. Much to my horror, this label is no longer on the package! It now says “UEP Certified” which i’ve since discovered is a crock! Has anyone else noticed this change? Does anyone know why and if Costco eggs are still cage free and/or produced by chickens that are humanely raised?

  10. Nadia says:

    You’ll probably want to contact the company directly with this question – only can they can answer definitively.

  11. Jean says:

    Not only the Costco Kirkland organic eggs have become of inferior quality, they are not even large size as labeled. You will find several out of the 2 dozens that are large, the rest are definitely of small size. Costco’s pricing has become less competitive and quality has gone down since a couple of years ago. Not to mention we have to pay an annual membership and buy large quantity. Although still a member, I am buying less from Costco and have virtually switch ed to Trader Joe and the local farmers. This way my food stays more fresh as I do not have to keep a larger quantity. It actually saves me money, as often time the veggie purchased from Costco ends up being spoiled before I can use it all up. Now I do not have any rotten veggie to throw away and I have greater varieties to choose from daily.

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