Buying eggs is no longer a simple task. Shoppers are confronted with a variety of labels on the carton, like “cage-free” and “pasture-raised,” and it’s easy to get confused. While reading through the labels may seem like a hassle, understanding what they mean yields valuable insight into everything that happened along the way to get that carton of eggs into your hands.
Be stumped no more with a rundown of the most commonly found labels:
According to the U.S. Humane Society, the majority of egg-laying hens are kept in battery cages. These cages provide only 67 square inches of space for each hen to live in, which is smaller than one sheet of letter-sized paper. The hens are kept crowded together and pass their entire lives in the confines of the cage; they are never allowed to leave the cage or go outside. The source noted that because they are kept in cages, the hens are not able to behave naturally and perch, nest or dustbathe, which they do to groom. Cage-free hens are not kept in cages and are allowed to walk around in an open space, and can lay their eggs in nests and take part in other natural behaviors important to their welfare, unlike caged hens. However, cage-free doesn’t not necessarily mean that the hens move around outside. Frequently, they are kept in an enclosed indoor area.
Battery cages are no bigger than the size of a sheet of paper.
Free-range hens are not kept in cages and spend part of their time outdoors and part indoors. However, the lengths of time they are required to be outside are not specified, according to Prevention magazine.
These hens have the greatest freedom compared to cage-free and free-range birds. The hens are allowed to roam, graze and engage in natural behaviors outdoors. Prevention noted, however, that the hens are frequently housed in trailers that are driven to different fields. Eggs that come from pasture-raised hens may have additional health benefits. A study by Mother Earth News found that the eggs of pasture-raised hens contained less saturated fat and cholesterol, three times more Vitamin E and two times more omega-3 fatty acids than typical commercial eggs, reported TakePart magazine.
Organic eggs are USDA-certified and are one of the few types of eggs to have regulations on the feed given to hens, which must also be organic and contain no animal by-products or pesticides. The hens are not kept in cages and are allowed outdoors.
Certified Humane Raised and Handled
This classification means that the eggs comply with the standards of the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care program. The hens are not kept in cages and are allowed the space to perform their natural behaviors, however, it is not specified that they must be allowed outside.
“Organic eggs are one of the few types to have regulations on the feed given to hens.”
Animal Welfare Approved
This is perhaps the strictest of all egg classifications. Only small-scale farms participate in this program, according to TakePart, and are regularly audited by the Animal Welfare Institute, which according to the site has “the highest animal welfare protocols of any third-party auditing program by the Humane Society.” The birds must spend a significant amount of time outside and must live in flocks that are no larger than 500 birds.
Choosing your eggs
Even with a range of standards and classifications, the welfare of the chickens or their conditions of their living environments cannot always be guaranteed, and there’s some room for interpretation in terms of the requirements of each standard. If you are concerned about the welfare of the hens, your best bet is to buy eggs from farmer’s markets or direct from local farms, and visit the farms if possible to get the clearest view of how the hens are treated.