Egg labels: what egg-zactly do they mean?

ON A RECENT TRIP TO THE GROCERY STORE, my brain became scrambled, if you will, at the task of buying eggs. Each dozen was littered with phrases touting reasons to buy it. (My personal favorite: “hand fed and watered with love.” Aw, I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.)

HERE’S THE RUNDOWN:

Conventional eggs come from hens raised in battery cages inside heated and air-cooled growing houses. Hens may have beaks “trimmed” to prevent pecking and cannibalism (probably a result of crowded living space and the inability to engage in normal behaviors). They are fed a high protein diet which could include animal proteins (chicken feathers, for example). This type of egg is the top selling egg type in the U.S. and also (or maybe because) it’s the cheapest.

USDA Regulated Terms:

Free-Range: Birds are raised in heated and air-cooled growing houses with access to the outdoors. Most hens do not go out. As Michael Pollan observed in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, at the farm he visited which raised organic, free-range chickens, the chickens were kept indoors until 5 weeks to keep them from getting sick (no antibiotics), but killed at 7 weeks. He never saw a chicken go outside. This term can appear by itself, meaning the hens are fed a traditional diet, or along with other terms such as “organic” or “vegetarian fed.”

Pastured/Pasture-Raised: Birds are raised outdoors using movable enclosures located on grass. Pasture-raised hens don’t eat just grass, but also worms, grubs, and seeds, as well as supplemental feed provided by the farmer. This term can appear by itself, meaning the hens are fed a traditional diet, or along with other terms such as “organic” or “vegetarian fed.”

Organic: Hens must be fed organic feed free of pesticides, fertilizers, hormones, and non-organic additives. Organic chicken feed contains no animal byproducts, genetically modified organisms, or synthetic amino acids. This term can appear by itself, meaning the hens are raised in traditional battery cages, or along with another term such as “free-range.”

Antibiotic-Free: Hens are raised without the use of antibiotics. When hens are kept crowded in cages, as on factory farms, they are more prone to disease and are more likely to need antibiotics than hens able to roam. This term can appear by itself, meaning the hens are raised in traditional battery cages, or along with another term such as “free-range.”

Non-USDA Regulated Terms:

Vegetarian Feed: Hens are fed a diet free of animal by-products, such as beef tallow or chicken feathers. It also means the hens aren’t eating worms or grubs, indicating that the hens most likely aren’t spending time outdoors. (Chickens are omnivores and enjoy nice juicy worms.)

Cage Free: Hens aren’t kept in cages. That’s all. This term doesn’t necessarily mean the hens are spending time outdoors.

Humanely Raised/ Certified Humane: A non-government organization, Humane Farm Animal Care, has a certification process which includes no cages and hens having at least 1.5 square feet of floor space. Debeaking is allowed.

Omega-3: Pasture raised hens naturally get omega-3s in their diet through grasses. Non-pastured hens are fed flaxseed, algae, or fish oil, which raises the omega-3 content.

No Animal Fat in Feed: Some chickens have animal fat in their feed. Unless the label specifies otherwise, the feed could have animal fat.

Sufficient space to engage in natural behaviors: Hens are given more space. This is not a guarantee of humane treatment. Nor does it necessarily mean the hens did engage in natural behaviors.

DHA: Just as eggs high in omega-3 come from hens fed a diet high in omega-3, eggs with DHA come from hens fed a diet high in DHA (from perilla seeds, fish oil, or linseed oil for example).

No Steroids: The use of steroids in poultry is illegal in the U.S.

WHAT DID I BUY? I picked up a dozen from Vital Farms because the chickens  live outside in pasture 100% of the time, have a diet of 1/3 native grasses (supplemented by organic feed),  are all raised this way not just some chickens as a marketing ploy (cough, Giving Nature, cough.)

THE BOTTOM LINE: Read egg carton labels carefully and skeptically. The terms and phrases used might have different meaning when they’re combined rather than alone and some may have no real meaning at all beyond a marketing gimmick. Decide what’s important to you and buy accordingly.