The Incredible, Edible, Egg

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It used to be that when you’d go to the grocery store to purchase a dozen eggs all you’d have to worry about is whether or not any were cracked. Today, things are more complicated; many different labels may appear on an egg carton, referring to the hens’ living conditions and how they’re fed. Some labels are confusing; others marketing gimmicks. Here’s a rundown of the most popular labels.

Antibiotic-free, Medication-free:  Unregulated term; can mean anything.

Cage-free:  The hens “reside” in large barns or warehouses. They’re required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality is undefined.

Certified Organic:  “USDA certified organic” reflects an improvement over standard living conditions for hens. They’re fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, housed cage-free in large barns, and may, or may not, see the outdoors. They may be de-beaked – to prevent pecking their peers – and starved; to induce molting, which leads to more egg production.

Farm Fresh:  Meaningless.

Fertile:  The hens are living with roosters, which means they were likely cage-free.

Free-range or Free-roaming:  This is an unregulated term, but implies that the hens aren’t in cages, reside in a barn and have outdoor access, the extent to which isn’t defined.

Hormone-free:  Marketing gimmick. Hens never get treated with hormones.

Natural, All Natural:  A meaningless marketing term.

Omega-3 enriched:  The hens are fed fish oil or flaxseed.  Omega-3 eggs are unregulated; you won’t know how much and what type of omega-3 you’re getting second hand.

Pasture-raised:  Unregulated term, but usually means that the hen spends the majority of the year outdoors engaging in natural activities, such as foraging. De-beaking and starvation are allowed.

Pasteurized:  The eggs were heated to about 110 degrees Fahrenheit for half an hour or longer. There’s no regulation of this term.

United Egg Producers Certified:  Meaningless.

Vegetarian-fed:  No animal byproducts in the feed.  Chickens are omnivores, and will eat bugs, mice, and any other animal small enough for them to peck and swallow.

In addition to “organic,” there are several third party certification systems that you may encounter in specialty shops or farmers markets:

Animal Welfare Approved:  Flocks can be no greater than 500 hens, housed cage-free, with continuous access to outdoor vegetation.  De-beaking and starvation are prohibited; feed is vegetarian.

American Humane Certified:  There are for certification levels: 

Colony cages, larger than standard, but still tiny.

Cage-free, in which hens are housed in large barns, with no outdoor access required

Free range, where outdoor access is required, but no duration specified

Pastured, with outdoor access featuring substantial vegetation for each hen.

Certified Humane:  Is divided into three levels:

Regular, in which hens are cage-free, starvation prohibited, but de-beaking allowed.

Free Range, with at least six hours of sunlight daily, but it can be without any vegetation.

The highest level is pasture-raised, which demands at least six hours a day of pasture access. The hens eat off the land, not just feed.

Food Alliance Certified:  Cage-free hens, with outdoor access for at least eight hours daily. De-beaking is allowed, but not starvation.