What to Eat: What Do These Labels on Egg Cartons Really Mean?

The first key to egg buying is wading through the morass of label claims on the cartons. Terms like cage-free, free-range, and organic might tell you whether the hens laying your eggs were happier—but those labels don’t mean squat when it comes to the safety of eggs. There’s simply not much evidence that eggs from cage-free (or organic or free-range) flocks are less contaminated with pathogens than conventional eggs. Even in a perfectly managed organic or backyard flock, eggs can become contaminated—either by germs in the environment or the hens’ feed. Here is a brief explanation of what egg labels mean:


USDA Organic
• Prohibits cages
• Prohibits antibiotics
• Requires access to outdoors; amount/quality of access is variable
• Requires organic feed
• Allows beak trimming
• Allows forced molting

Animal Welfare Approved
• Prohibits cages
• Requires continuous access to outdoors
• Requires space to perform natural behaviors
• Prohibits animal byproducts in feed
• Prohibits forced molting
• Prohibits beak trimming

Certified Humane
• Prohibits cages, but does not require outdoor access
• Requires space to roam/perform natural behaviors
• Prohibits animal byproducts in feed
• Prohibits growth promoters
• Prohibits non-therapeutic antibiotics
• Allows beak trimming

• Prohibits cages
• Requires space to roam but does not require access to sunlight
• Allows beak trimming
• Does not regulate feed or antibiotics

• Applies to processed products only, thus in-shell eggs is a marketing gimmick; all eggs are “natural”

3 Replies to “What to Eat: What Do These Labels on Egg Cartons Really Mean?”

  1. I’m surprised you didn’t include “Pastured Raised” eggs in your post, as pasture-raised eggs are the eggs from chickens that actually run around outside, eat snacks from the landscape along with their daily rations of grain, and get to dust and live like real beings. Demand is growing very quickly for these types of eggs as more and more consumers realize that chickens deserve humanity, too — and that most of the previous labeling was just marketing and didn’t improve anything for the well-being of the chicken.

    1. From the Nutrition Action Healthletter: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not developed an official federal definition of “pasture-raised” due to “the number of variables involved in pasture-raised agricultural systems.” Egg producers who make this claim about their eggs are not required to use third-party auditing to verify it, but can do so if they want to.

      However, the criteria for what constitutes “pasture-raised” varies considerably. In general, the use of growth hormones and antibiotics (except to treat disease) is prohibited. But some certifying agencies allow the feeding of animal byproducts, while others don’t. The amount of room and outdoor space required for hens varies, and beak trimming is permitted by some, prohibited by others.

      So, it’s difficult for consumers to know what they’re getting when they buy “pasture-raised” eggs.

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