Every day my children run out to our chicken coop to see if they hens have begun to lay eggs. It should happen any day now. As we wait for the first little gem to arrive, I am reminded once again of the value in keeping hens in my yard. Don’t get me wrong…it takes a long time for these birds to actually lay. The kids and I picked up our day old chicks in a tiny peeping box the first week of June, and it’s now the end of October and we haven’t had a single egg yet. But the wait is worth it. There is nothing like a fresh egg from a healthy, happy, bug-eating, veggie scrap-munching chicken. Many of the egg cartons you find in the store attempt to paint a happy, iconic farm image of the lives their chickens lead, and thereby attach a giant price tag to a carton of eggs. But the sad truth is that nearly all of the eggs available in the grocery store are from chickens raised in deplorable conditions. And as a result, the nutritional quality of the eggs is actually not as good as those of hens raised by families in suburbia (or wherever you happen to be). So here’s the skinny on how to read egg labels.

What’s wrong with generic brand, grocery store eggs?

Eggs with no specific labels, like those sold by major grocery store chains around the country, are produced on giant factory farms. The farms usually consist of large windowless warehouses with rows of battery cages stacked one on top of another. These cages contain anywhere from 3-12 birds and often do not provide the animals with enough space to stand, turn around, or spread their wings. The conditions are filthy. Disease runs rampant, and workers must wear masks to avoid inhaling the toxic air. Sadly, eggs produced by hens in these conditions are what the majority of Americans eat every morning for breakfast. Americans are frightfully uninformed about how their food is produced. And at the end of the day, these eggs are CHEAP. Like everything else in life, you get what you pay for. If you are interested in learning more about what really goes on inside commercial egg factories, this link leads to an undercover investigation of a California egg farm. **Warning – it contains graphic footage that may be disturbing to some viewers**

But what about the eggs that have special labels?

Free-Range or Cage-Free: This label sounds nice doesn’t it? I like to picture a grassy pasture full of happy Rhode Island Reds scratching in the dirt nibbling grass and weeds. Sadly, most of the hens who are “free-range” are not actually free at all. Free-range simply means that hens must have access to the outside. That means there needs to be a door in the henhouse…and it must be open for part of the day. Anyone who has spent any times with chickens knows they are not the brightest creatures. Even though the door is open, most probably never figure out how to step foot outside. And even if they do venture out, the “yard” may not even contain any dirt or grass. It may resemble a fenced parking lot as the USDA has not specified conditions for size or quality of the “range”. It’s also important to note that these birds are also de-beaked just as confined laying hens are. De-beaking involves snipping off a portion of the bird’s beak (without the use of anesthesia) so the hens cannot peck one another in close quarters.

Organic: Eggs that are marked “organic” are raised on a farm that has passed the USDA qualifications for such a title. These birds are fed vegetarian, antibiotic-free feed, they are not de-beaked, and they are not supposed to be confined to cages but sources site them being confined to battery cages just as factory eggs hens are.

Pasteurized: Eggs are placed in hot water to kill bacteria that may be present on the shell. Studies have actually shown that washing eggs causes the shell to become porous thus inviting the very bacteria that was so worrisome on the shell to be introduced to the part of the egg that is consumed. Of course, the average consumer doesn’t know this, and soiled eggs would probably not sell very well at the local chain supermarket.

Vegetarian: This label has nothing to do with the condition in which chickens are raised. It only refers to their feed. Vegetarian hens are not fed any feed with animal proteins included. Since chickens are naturally omnivorous, this is actually a rather silly label in my opinion.

Free Farmed/Certified Humane: This label requires farmers to pass the most stringent screening. These hens are supposed to be housed in conditions that are safe and comfortable. They are supposed to be able to perch, dust bathe, roost, and do all the other things that are natural chicken behaviors. Please note that these animals may still be de-beaked, and they may be starved to induce molting (molting leads to another cycle of egg laying). Doesn’t sound very “free” or “humane” to me.

Pastured: Refers to chickens who are truly raised on grass and bugs outdoors in the sunshine (or rain as it may be). They may be in pens, but the pens are actually placed in a pasture to allow the chickens to forage as they would in nature. Grass fed or pastured hens produce eggs with a rich orange yoke as a result of all the green matter and insects they consume. The taste is incredible!

At the end of the day, the only way to truly know how your food was produced is to either produce it yourself, or know the farmer personally who did. Raising backyard laying hens is so simple. All they need is adequate shelter, feed, and water. If you would like more information about keeping backyard chickens, take a look at my Chicken Keeping 101 post. It contains all the basic information you need to get started with your own backyard flock. And if backyard hens are not your thing, I would encourage you to find a small local farm in your area to support with your egg money. You may pay a bit more than the generic grocery store variety, but you will be able to taste the difference! To find a family egg farm in your area, visit Local Harvest.

But there’s more! A 2009 study by Mother Earth News found that the nutritional content of pasture or back-yard raised hens is exponentially greater that eggs produced in factories. Check out these numbers:

Pastured eggs vs. factory eggs contain

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat
  • 2/3 more vitamin A
  • Two times more omega-3 fatty acids
  • Three times more vitamin E
  • Seven times more beta carotene
  • three-to-six times more vitamin D

Holy smokes! Sounds like the extra bucks or the extra “work” to raise hens might actually be worth it.

What are your thoughts? Are you conscious of egg labels when you shop? Do you prefer one label over the other? How do you decide which eggs to buy?






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2 Responses to How to Read Egg Labels

  1. Emma says:

    It’s good to see factory farms getting the negative attention they deserve. Whether you avoid their eggs for moral issues or health reasons, the point is to avoid them! I love your descriptions of each kind of eggs – easy enough for anyone to understand (even me, lol!)

  2. says:

    Thanks Emma! I hope other “regular” families will be inspired to shop with their dollars or to take the plunge and get some hens. They really are SO fun!

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