Are Cage Free and Free Range Egg Labels All Cracked Up? (Infographic)

organic eggs

Welcome to Organic Authority’s definitive guide on reading egg labels and understanding the different label claims, complete with a detailed infographic below. From cage free to free range egss and more–which eggs are really worth your money?

As far as a vegetarian, paleo-friendly protein, eggs are one of the best real food options, yet with all the labels on the cartons (and the varying prices) do you really know what you’re scrambling?

A Few Eggy Stats

First, a few statistics:

  • About 85 billion eggs are sold every year in the U.S.
  • About 1 million USDA organic eggs are sold every year.
  • The USDA recommends that you store eggs at 45 degrees maximum.
  • A dozen jumbo eggs must weigh a minimum of 30 ounces, as compared to a dozen large eggs, which must weigh a minimum of 24 ounces.
  • The average per capita consumption of eggs in the U.S. has fallen from 389 in 1950 (that’s more than an egg a day!) to 247 in 2008, over 140 fewer eggs per year.
  • The average hen lays 259 eggs per year.
  • About 60 percent of the eggs produced in the U.S. are used by consumers.
  • According to Karin Samelson of Vital Farms, “Roughly 95 percent of all eggs laid in the U.S. are from factory farmed hens – which means hens that have about the size of a sheet of typing paper to live in for their entire short lives.”

Cracking the Egg: How to Read Labels

Sometimes, standing in the egg aisle at your local market can seem like a code-breaking adventure. But surprisingly, many of those confusing and often contradictory labels are misleading — in fact, some of them hardly mean a concrete thing at all.

That’s why it’s so important to know not just what labels mean, but also what different egg farmers endeavor to provide with their eggs. The nonprofit organic watchdog, the Cornucopia Institute, has created an organic egg scorecard outlining the differences amongst a number of egg brands. Mark Kastel, co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, says that there are several steps that should be taken when choosing eggs. In fact, understanding these steps is one of the motivations behind creating the scorecard for consumers.

While Kastel says that first and foremost, we should be choosing organic eggs, unfortunately that isn’t enough. The scorecard allows you to see which egg producers follow the criteria that you find important, something that isn’t quite as transparent when just following the “organic” label.

“The USDA has been allowing some factory farms to label their eggs ‘organic’ even if the hens are confined in giant buildings, holding his many as 100,000 birds,” Kastel explains. “The scorecard helps you reward the true heroes in this industry, protect the welfare of the animals who produce our food and provide your family with the most nutritious and flavorful eggs.”

Karin Samelson works with Vital Farms, one of the coveted 5-egg rankings on the Cornucopia scorecard. Vital Farms started as a backyard venture in egg production, but now it has become a partnership with over 52 small family farms in six states.

Samelson’s experience informs her suggestion to be wary of taking labels at face value and risk putting your money towards something you don’t believe in. “Just because a carton may state ‘free-range’ with an illustration of a big red barn and birds running around outdoors doesn’t mean that’s anywhere near reality,” she says. “The consumer should rely on independent third party inspectors/auditors, when they are unable to inspect themselves (like they would at a local farm).”

Some of these independent third party inspectors have their own labels, which are some of the only ones that you can trust, as a list of criteria must be fulfilled before the label can be placed on these eggs — criteria that include how much space a hen has to roam, what the hen is fed, even how barns and fences are built.

“It makes it easier on (the farmers) because the rules are set forth by folks that have spent their entire lives studying the welfare of animals – experts with their PhDs and masters in animal science and veterinary medicine,” Samelson says.

What’s Hiding Behind Different Egg Labels? A Comprehensive Examination

With this in mind, here is a quick guide to each of the different egg labels along with the average price per egg (estimated based on prices calculated for Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect). You’ll also find photos shot from some members of our team showing local prices in their parts of the country — egg prices can vary by region.

We’ve grouped the best labels for eggs at the bottom of this list, with the worst at the top. And because so many of these label claims do not mean very much at all, it can be hard to categorically state which label is the best of the best. We are, however, intent on letting you know exactly how to choose your egg label.

1. Vegetarian Eggs – $.42/organic vegetarian egg, $.27/vegetarian egg

So-called “vegetarian” eggs are not actually defined by the FDA, so it’s hard to know what you’re getting if you opt for these.

Vegetarian eggs are supposedly eggs that hail from chickens that eat a vegetarian diet, a concern that came about because of cannibalism in traditional chicken farms, i.e. chickens eating chicken byproducts. This being said, chickens are naturally omnivores, so vegetarian eggs are not actually all that natural.

This specification also does not let you know if the eggs are organic or if the chickens are fed GMO feeds, antibiotics or hormones.

2. Cage-Free Eggs – $.42/organic cage-free egg, $.33 cents/cage-free egg

Cage-free eggs may sound great, but just because hens are not being kept in cages does not mean that they have enough living space or that their living space is clean or outdoors. This specification also does not let you know if the eggs are organic or if the chickens are fed GMOs, antibiotics or hormones. While cage-free is a good start, it’s far from the best certification.

Cage free eggs Trader Joe's

3. Certified Humane – $.60/organic, certified humane egg, $.35/certified humane egg

The Certified Humane indication is a certification that is organized by the HFAC non-profit organization. According to the group, the goal of this certification is to “improve the lives of farm animals by driving consumer demand for kinder and more responsible farm animal practices.”

happy eggs

That being said, while Certified Humane eggs are some of the most humane on the market, certain things are not covered by their standards. While the certification does prohibit cages, antibiotics and hormones, it does not ensure outdoor access for chickens and still allows for debeaking, which is typically done without anesthetics.

Humane fraud was also recently uncovered related to this certification, so be cautious when choosing these eggs.

4. Free-Range – $.48/organic free-range egg, $.39/free-range egg

Free-range eggs are eggs that come from chickens that have had outdoor access — but this is the entire definition of the label, meaning that the amount of access is not regulated, nor are any other important criteria.

Bristol Farms Cage-Free Eggs

“Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside,” says the USDA. Other than this standard, the USDA does not investigate further to see if the eggs fulfill any of the other humane standards covered by some of the other labels. Specifically, this certification does not cover clean living conditions or antibiotics, hormones or GMOs in chicken feed.

Organic vegetarian eggs

5. United Egg Producers Certified – $.29/UEP certified egg

United Egg Producers Certified is yet another label that may seem misleadingly promising at first glance. While the label does prohibit forced molting, they labels are known for misleading consumers, leading them to think practices are more humane than they actually are.

According to the Humane Society of the United States, “the Better Business Bureau ruled (and upheld upon appeal) that the UEP engaged in misleading advertising related to animal welfare. And in late 2006, the UEP paid a $100,000 fine to settle false advertising claims by 16 state attorney general offices and the Washington, D.C., attorney general.”

Bear in mind that this isn’t to say that all farms using this label use inhumane practices, but rather that the presence of the label itself is not a guarantee that practices are humane.

6. Natural – $.29/natural egg

You may already know this from controversy surrounding the words “all natural” printed on everything from cereal boxes to household cleaners, but the word “natural” is not regulated by the USDA. In other words, the word “natural” on your egg carton is as useful as the word “egg.”

Ralph's Natural, Grain-Fed, Cage-free Eggs

7. Animal Welfare Approved – $.52 cents/AWA egg

Animal Welfare Approved eggs are some of the most well controlled on the market today.

According to the AWA itself, its standards have been developed alongside a variety of professionals including scientists to create the ideal environment for the animal. “To accomplish the goals of the Animal Welfare Approved program, all standards address every aspect of each species’ lifecycle needs from birth to death,” the group says. Some of these standards include a limited flock size, access to the outdoors, the encouragement of GMO-free feeds and the prohibition of debeaking.

Kastel says of the different animal welfare labels, “On one end of the spectrum you have the label by the industry trade-lobby group, United Egg Producers [outlined above]. Their welfare label is virtually meaningless.”

“On the other end of the spectrum is Animal Welfare Approved, an exemplary program run and funded by a nonprofit,” he continues. Yet another vote of confidence for AWA.

The only unfortunate element of this particular certification is that, at time of writing, no producers of these eggs sell them via large supermarkets. But the group does offer a search to help you find Animal Welfare Approved eggs near you.

Long Dream Farm is one AWA certified farm in California. “Our chickens enjoy a beautiful and peaceful setting and happily co-exist with our milk cows and other farm animals,” the farm says. “During the day they have free access to pasture and at night they are comfortably housed, safe from predators. They live off forage, sprouts and soy-free organic feed and are given no hormones or unnecessary medication.”

8. Pastured Eggs – $.50 cents/egg

Pastured eggs are sourced from chickens allowed outdoor access and grazing. This label also usually indicates locally sourced eggs, though this is not a required standard.

Organic feed is also not required of these particular eggs. Kastel calls the pasture label “a great concept.” Unfortunately, if those chickens aren’t organic, and they’re not eating organic feed, 85 percent of their diet is going to be from chemical intensive agriculture and likely genetically modified soy and corn. “Although chickens will eat quite a diverse diet they are not ruminants and they cannot, unlike cows, live on 100 percent grass,” says Kastel. “In the winter, depending on where you live, they might be fed 100 percent grain and that needs to be organic.”

In spite of moves towards a better lifestyle for chickens with this label, however the pastured label is a bit like the natural label in that it’s not heavily regulated. Basically, anyone who wants to put “pastured” on their label can, so be sure you get more information about what pastured means in each individual case rather than just taking the label itself and taking it at face value.

Be aware, however, that the Certified Humane label has recently assigned a specific definition to the “Pasture Raised” label which, according to HFAC, is:

“1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird), and the fields must be rotated. The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators, or for up to two weeks out of the year, due only to very inclement weather.”

Of course, a certified pasture-raised egg is a bit on the expensive side as far as eggs go. But Samelson says that in this case, the extra money is worth it. “When it comes down to it – eggs are the best protein source for the price,” she says. “Pasture-raised eggs (with a Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved seal) are the only eggs anybody should be buying. If we’re able to have a ethically and sustainably farming system for a slightly higher cost than a factory farm – there’s absolutely no reason why folks shouldn’t budget that into their monthly grocery bill.”

According to Samelson, when the pasture label is used effectively, it’s also one of the best for farmers themselves. “In the case of a pasture-raised system, our farmers benefit because they can farm for a living and actually make a decent wage,” she says. “and a huge plus is the fact that they can make it a family affair – since our pastures are never treated with herbicides or pesticides, their kiddos are free to help alongside their mom and dad.”

Great for chickens and great for farmers — pasture-raised gets a gold star in our book.

9. USDA Organic – $.42/egg

The USDA Organic label is one that we’ve grown to trust here at Organic Authority, and that still holds true for eggs–to a certain extent. While feeds and the use of antibiotics and hormones are strictly regulated by the USDA, and cages are not allowed, the organic label does not set any requirements for the use of debeaking processes or forced molting.

Organic Valley Eggs

That’s one of the main reasons that Kastel suggests you go a step further. “The majority of organic eggs are also coming from giant agribusinesses that produce both conventional and organic eggs and can find their chickens. To get ‘real’ organic eggs consumers need to, unfortunately, do a little bit of additional homework by consulting the organic eggs scorecard and Cornucopia’s website.”

These “real” organic eggs will come from chickens that have been pasture raised, at least in part. The resulting eggs will have dark yellow, almost orange yolks and be much more flavorful and nutritious.

Buying organic eggs with a pasture-raised or AWA label is the best way to go.

10. Eggs with No Label

When you buy eggs directly from a small producer or local market like a farmers market stall, often there will be no label at all. In this case, it’s up to you to do your homework and find out what these small producers hold to be important. Carey Wood of Olde Mackenzie Farm in PEI, Canada is one such producer. “All the produce grown on The Olde MacKenzie Farm is naturally grown without the use of conventional pesticides,” says their website. “They also practice sustainable agriculture and biodiversity. While they are not currently Certified Organic, they follow all the practices to ensure that the crops they yield follow organic growing methods.”

Wood himself opens our eyes to what that entails. “Our hens are free range and eat lots of veggie scraps which also helps with compost and insect control at the farm,” he says. “We do not have specific labels on our eggs since they are picked up direct from us through our veggie box program. Since we are small scale, our costs can be higher.”

Supporting these small farms without certifications is yet another option that can lead you to the top quality eggs, as long as you do your homework first.

Still, some of these smaller farmers do opt for a certification. “There’s no reason that you can’t choose certified organic and local by shopping at a farmers market, member-own food cooperative, directly from a farmer or at another responsible retailer,” says Kastel. “Your homework will reward the true heroes in our industry and, simultaneously, bless your family with truly wonderful, nutrient-dense food.”

New Cage Regulation Sizes: What Does this Mean for Egg Prices and is it Worth It?

You may have already noticed news stories covering a recent development in California regulations for cage size: the CA SEFS compliance regulation requires that cages be almost twice as large as they have been in the past: the law, which is called Proposition 2, requires eggs in California to come from chickens that have enough room in their cages to turn around freely. After experimentation, a number was assigned to this rather vague regulation: 116 square feet.

Notification of proposition 2 in Bristol Farms

While this is a great stride for humane egg sales in California, it has sent the egg prices in the state skyrocketing. A spike in prices at the end of last year and beginning of this year, as the law went into effect, showed that California eggs were being sold at nearly $1 more a dozen than in New York.

While egg producers in other states originally challenged the law, saying that eggs produced in other, notably colder states, would be at a disadvantage, as farmers who had been raising their chickens in battery cages would have to invest in heaters in order to keep their chickens as warm as they had been when they were packed tightly together, a judge overruled the complaint and has upheld the law. This means that, at least for California residents, every single egg available in the grocery store is that much more humane — and that much tastier.

What About You?

The best thing that you can do to make sure you’re always making the right choices in terms of egg labels is stay informed about developments in the egg industry. Says Samelson, “Do your research, ask questions and be willing to learn. That the difference is a mere few dollars per dozen – for a vastly different farming system.”

So what about you? What kind of eggs are you keeping in your fridge? The USDA recommends that you always store your eggs in their original carton, so pull it out of the fridge and take a picture of it! Share it with us on Facebook, Twitter or Pinterest — let us know what sort of eggs you’re eating at home.

Top egg image via Shutterstock: siambizkit

Emily Monaco is a food and culture writer based in Paris. Her work has been featured in the Wall... More about Emily Monaco