Label lowdown: Eggs
This article was originally published in March 2020
Practically every egg carton on the shelf advertises attractive-sounding claims through both messaging and the use of certification labels. Look a little deeper to see what these claims and labels do—and, just as important, don’t—guarantee. Here’s a look at some of the common egg labels and on-package claims, with information courtesy of our partners at Consumer Reports.
Cage-free: This term is not regulated by any oversight agency. Cage-free chickens are not raised in a cage, according to Consumer Reports, but “might be packed into a building with tens of thousands of other birds with little ability to roam and peck.”
Free-range: Definitions can range broadly. As a baseline, hens have access to an outdoor space, but there is no government standard for the amount, and birds may not be able to reach the door to the outdoors. (See the story “PCC sets a new standard for sustainable eggs” for PCC’s definition of free-range.)
Pasture-raised: While definitions can differ, the common ground is quite literally the ground. Most certifications and claims imply significant outdoor time on pasture and a substantial amount of space per hen (e.g., 108 square feet). This claim also means that pasture must include living vegetation.
Labels or Seals
Third-party certification labels or seals often have a range of standards that can earn their use depending on additional on-package claims, such as “free-range” or “pasture-raised.” Here are some key labels to look for and what they can mean:
USDA certified organic: The only such label backed by federal law, certified organic foods have minimal pesticide residues, no genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in the feed, and animals are raised without antibiotics or added hormones. However, Consumer Reports rates the label’s animal welfare requirements as weak; for instance, while poultry must be raised in living conditions that accommodate their “health and natural behaviors,” chickens’ beaks may be trimmed under organic standards and the Department of Agriculture has not enforced the label’s requirement for outdoor access for chickens. (Combine organic with “pasture-raised,” however, and outdoor, on-pasture access is assured.)
Non-GMO Project Verified: Food must contain no or minimal (less than 0.9%) genetically modified or engineered organisms. Manufacturers must work with independent certification companies that verify the product meets the Non-GMO Project’s standards. The label does not address animal welfare.
Certified Humane: Overseen by Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization. Baseline standards require that farms must provide living conditions that allow animals’ freedom of movement and materials that allow them to engage in natural behaviors and increase their comfort. The standards require that all farmworkers be trained in humane animal care, and animals must be treated compassionately at all times. However, for laying hens, while cages are prohibited, the minimum space for hens can be as little as 1 square foot per bird. The standards require perches and nest boxes, both of which are important for laying hens, but do not require outdoor access or ways of engaging in natural scratch-and-peck behavior. (If you see a Certified Humane seal plus a “pasture-raised” or “free-range” claim on a carton of eggs, however, it means that the hens were required to have outdoor access with stronger space requirements.) Beak trimming is allowed.
American Humane Certified: Small wire cages (called battery cages) can’t be used, but hens may be raised in other types of cages. The minimum space requirements are less than 1 square foot per bird. The birds must be given nest boxes and a place to roost—important for the welfare of laying hens. Indoor ammonia levels (produced by animal waste), which when high can cause illness, must be controlled. Beak trimming is allowed. Hens don’t have to have access to a pasture, run or other outdoor space. (However, an American Humane label plus a “pasture-raised” or “free-range” claim on a carton of eggs means the hens were required to have outdoor access.)
Animal Welfare Approved: Chickens are raised on a pasture but also have access to a chicken house. They must be protected from predators and have shelter to protect them from extreme weather. The space requirements per bird exceed those of other animal welfare certification programs. The standards also require perches, dust baths, and nest boxes, all of which are important for laying hens. Beak trimming is prohibited.
United Egg Producers Certified: Hens can be confined in wire cages that provide less than half a square foot of space per bird. Birds housed in cages are not given a place to roost or nest. Producers have to provide nesting spaces for “cage-free” birds that live in a chicken house, but perches are a low-priority requirement and no access to outdoors is required. Beak trimming is allowed. Hens don’t have access to pasture, run or any other additional space.
If there’s a label you’d like us to address, send recommendations to firstname.lastname@example.org.