Whether you are concerned about animal cruelty and factory farming or are looking to reduce the antibiotic and pesticide load in your food, sorting through and interpreting the various egg labels out there can be confusing. Many packages display misleading claims and even those that fall under regulation are not well enforced. This creates a dilemma for you, the egg buyer. So, the next time you head to the store, keep this guide in mind.
To interpret an egg label, you need to ignore pictures and extra fluff words like “raised the old fashioned way” that are used to distract the consumer from what the egg labels truly say and mean.
Vegetarian Fed label
If you are worried about animal by-products, you should start by looking for the writing “vegetarian fed.” Eggs labeled “vegetarian fed” are from hens that are not fed any animal by-products. The label does not have anything to do with living conditions and can be misleading to some extent since the hens sometimes have access to insects as part of their diet.
If you do not find a “vegetarian fed” label, look for a “natural” label as it includes the vegetarian qualifications. Eggs labeled “natural” are vegetarian fed and contain no recycled feeds, no hormones, no antibiotics, and no steroids. In other words, natural eggs are minimally processed.
Then, figure out what kind of conditions the hens experienced. To do this, you will need to look for one of three labels.
The Humane Society endorses these three labels, the first being “Organic.” Producers that label eggs “organic” are audited by a third party to help ensure standards. “Organic” eggs come from hens that live in a barn or warehouse but are given access to the outside (this often indicates access to greens and insects). Organic egg layers are fed a vegetarian diet that prohibits antibiotics and pesticides. If a hen becomes sick, she is treated but removed from the flock, and her eggs cannot then be sold as organic. However, organic egg producers are allowed to cut the hens’ beaks and force them to molt.
Free range label
Eggs labeled “free range” do not follow a set standard audited by a third party. Therefore, when buying “free range” labeled eggs, you can not be sure which practices you are promoting. Free range layers are left uncaged inside and are sometimes given outdoor access. Yet, for “free range” eggs, there are no regulations for how crowded the barn or warehouse may be and, again, the producers are allowed to cut the hens’ beaks and force them to molt.
Like organic labeled eggs, “humane” labeled eggs are more standardized and are audited by a third party. Like free range laying hens, humanely kept hens are left uncaged. Furthermore, humane egg producers are required to have a certain number of perches and nesting boxes and must follow rules for how crowded the barn or warehouse may be. Hens laying “humane” labeled eggs can have their beaks cut but cannot be forced to molt.