Egg Labels: "Fowl" Play?
Updated: Apr 19, 2022
If you’ve walked into a grocery store in the past few years with the intention of buying eggs, at one point or another you’ve most likely debated the health merits of eggs labeled cage-free vs. free-range vs. organic, to name a few. With so many different types of labels, and more appearing every few years, it can be hard to know what you’re buying and which option is the healthiest.
To make it easier to navigate, this chart summarizes the meanings of the most common egg labels currently used in the United States. More detailed explanations of each label are provided below.
* Hormone use in poultry production was banned in the United States in the 1950s. Therefore, no eggs sold in the United States can come from hens that were implanted with or fed synthetic hormones.
While eggs from hens raised in a "natural" environment sounds nice, the reality is anything but. According to the USDA, the "Natural" label just means that the food is made with minimal processing and no artificial ingredients. Although fake eggs made from 100% synthetic ingredients are available for purchase in some countries (e.g. China)  in most countries, whole eggs in their original form (still in the shell) do not include artificial ingredients.
Unfortunately, the majority of eggs labeled "Natural" come from hens raised in factory farm CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations.) Industrial laying houses can hold up to 250,000 hens total - each one living wing-to-wing with up to five other hens in a cage the size of a small oven . These hens are subjected to unnatural and cruel living conditions, including not being able to move other than to peck at a food conveyor belt or sip at a water nipple and often sitting in their own feces. This horrid existence causes unnecessary stress, illness and overall unhealthy hens, who then lay nutrient-deficient eggs. Hens in this category may also be routinely given antibiotics, which are necessary to prevent diseases commonly caused by their unsanitary living conditions.
Eggs in this category may also be labeled "No Antibiotics Administered" or "Raised Without Antibiotics". Typically, these hens are still raised in factory farm CAFOs. They're just not routinely given antibiotics in their feed.
While the term "Cage-Free" implies more freedom of movement than their caged counterparts, the label does not come with a minimum space requirement for hens. According to the USDA, cage-free eggs just means "produced by hens housed in a way that allows for not only unlimited access to food and water, but... also provides them the freedom to roam during the laying cycle" . Typically, these chickens are still raised in overcrowded conditions indoors without any access to the outdoors or even sunlight. In fact, cage-free factory farms can still have as many as 200,000 hens living together in a single laying house . If existing in factory farm conditions, albeit without cages, there is no guarantee that cage-free chickens are not living in, and laying their eggs in, their own excrement. As a result, cage-free hens and their eggs, while healthier than caged birds, still suffer from nutritional deficiencies. Antibiotics may still be routinely used due to unsanitary living conditions.
"Free-Range" suggests that chickens continuously have access to the outdoors and are not confined to a hen house for their entire lives. However, this label doesn't mean that the hens actually spend a significant amount of time outside in a truly natural environment, if ever. Under US regulations, cement-floored, screened-in porches qualify as “outdoor access”  so it’s hard to know how much exposure these chickens truly have to dirt, grass and sunshine. Some free-range farms provide a lot of outdoor access for their chickens while others provide just enough to justify the "free-range" label.
This is probably the closest hens come to living the way they lived for centuries prior to World War II. "Pasture-raised" indicates that hens spend a significant amount of time on a pasture, meadow, fallow field or even the woods each day. According to The Real Organic Project, in this type of environment, up to one-third of hens' diets consist of insects, grass and seeds that they get from the pasture . The other two-thirds is from traditional feed, which may or may not be organic. This type of lifestyle is incredibly healthy for the hens, as it gives them the freedom to run around, forage for food and exercise all their natural behaviors. This additional freedom also provides distractions for more aggressive birds, who otherwise might attack their flock-mates in a more confined setting - an additional benefit of the pasture-raised environment.
The "Certified Humane" label is used in combination with other labels, specifically "Cage-Free", "Free-Range" and "Pasture Raised". It guarantees that the hen facilities meet the higher standards set by Humane Farm Animal Care for each category, providing an environment conducive to good health. The "Certified Humane" label ensures that the hens' living conditions are meeting the promises implied on egg cartons and that these declarations are certified annually by inspectors to ensure compliance.
When "Certified Humane" is paired with "Cage-Free", hens are required to have a healthier indoor environment, which includes minimum space requirements for freedom of movement, perches and nesting boxes, all of which allow hens to live a more natural life according to their instinctual habits.
When combined with "Free-Range", the "Certified Humane" label ensures that each hen has access to minimum outdoor space of 2 square feet per bird for at least 6 hours per day and that the outdoor space includes living vegetation.
The "Certified Humane" and "Pasture-Raised" label combination means hens have access to a pasture covered with living vegetation every day of their lives that does not constitute a welfare concern (e.g. bad weather). It also requires at least 108 square feet of space per bird .
The "Organic" label ensures that eggs come from hens fed a diet free of synthetic chemicals, including pesticides and fertilizers, antibiotics and genetically modified (a.k.a. bioengineered) ingredients. It is also supposed to guarantee that these hens have access to the outdoors through annual inspections to maintain certification. However, due to variation in how "Organic" certifiers interpret regulations, as well as potential corruption , "the USDA estimates that nearly 75% of USDA Organic eggs come from hens who are relegated to screened-in, solid-floored 'porches' - without true outdoor access" .
Which eggs are the healthiest?
The more freedom of movement hens have, the healthier they are, which means the healthier their eggs are for us. Eggs from hens who spend time outside in the sun have more vitamin D than eggs from hens raised solely indoors . Studies show that eggs from hens raised on pasture have double the vitamin E and omega-3s (heart-healthy fats) and more beta-carotene than eggs from hens with no access to the outdoors . In other words, hens that spend time outdoors and are able to forage for some amount of their own food in a pasture are healthier and produce more nutritious eggs than hens that do not.
Putting all your eggs in one basket
The most reliable source of nutritious eggs is directly from a nearby farm so you can talk to the farmer about his/her farming practices or even see the chickens in their home environment. During your local growing season, farmers markets are also a great place to purchase eggs from small, family farms.
Absent access to local farms and farmers markets, you can still buy nutrient-rich eggs at the grocery store. The healthiest choice of eggs are the ones labeled both "Organic" and "Pastured" (or "Pasture-raised"), preferably also "Certified Humane." If you have to make the choice between eggs labeled "Pastured" or "Organic", do some research on the egg company, or look for an additional "Certified Humane" label, to ensure that their wording accurately reflects the way their hens are being raised. In some cases, small, local farms pasture-raise their chickens using organic practices, but do not have the funds to pay for the "Organic" label.
Do you have a favorite egg supplier in your area? If so, share in the comments below for others who may need recommendations.
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 Rachael Moeller Gorman, "The Story Behind Your Eggs," Eating Well: Eating for Energy, New York: Meredith Operations Corporation, 2022, p. 71.  https://www.usda.gov/media/blog/2016/09/13/usda-graded-cage-free-eggs-all-theyre-cracked-be  https://www.cornucopia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/CertifierReport.pdf  https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2019/03/14/organic-food-industry-is-booming-that-may-be-bad-consumers/  https://www.realorganicproject.org/organic-and-pastured-eggs/  https://2gn8ag2k4ou3ll8b41b7v2qp-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/Std19.Layers.4H-1.pdf  https://www.cornucopia.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/CertifierReport.pdf  https://www.aspca.org/news/aspca-urges-stronger-enforcement-organic-foods-program
 Kühn, Julia, et al, "Free-range farming: A natural alternative to produce vitamin D-enriched eggs," Nutrition, Vol. 30 (2014): 481-484. Full text available here.
 Rachael Moeller Gorman, "The Story Behind Your Eggs," Eating Well: Eating for Energy, New York: Meredith Operations Corporation, 2022, p. 68.