Have I mentioned to you guys that our beautiful flock of hens starting laying last month? We honestly didn’t expect them to start giving us eggs for a few more weeks, so when we stumbled onto the first egg, we were shocked! And totally excited!
Ever since then, the girls have been rocking it. We have a flock of 12—11 of which are hens and they are all laying (in the nesting boxes, which is kinda a miracle since they free range), so we’re averaging between 8-10 eggs per day. It’s been amazing having fresh, free-range, organic, super tasty eggs in our kitchen all the time. It never gets old opening that egg door or cracking open one of “our” eggs and seeing a golden orange yolk.
If you aren’t lucky enough to have your own roving flock of hilarious chickens, you’ve probably bought a carton of eggs (or two) in the past few weeks, haven’t you? Man, egg labels can be SUPER confusing! Natural, Humane, Cage Free, Free Range, Organic, Farm Fresh, Free Roaming, Pasture Raised—what does any of it mean anyway? I thought I’d take a few minutes and break down what each of the labels on the carton mean for the chickens that laid those eggs. You might be surprised! I admit, since I am passionate about keeping my chickens happy and healthy, I am biased about what kind of producers I prefer to purchase eggs from (when I need to purchase them). Let me explain why!
Let’s start with what I personally consider the gold standard for eggs — pasture raised. Picture a farm with lots of happy little hens nibbling on the grass and bugs, and coming and going to their coop as they please. This is pasture raised.
Sometimes farmers and chickenkeepers use the term “free range” interchangeably with pasture raised (see above—I do!), but they actually mean different things when it comes to egg carton labeling—although neither are regulated by a governing body to ensure compliance to the generally accepted definition. If we happen to gift you a carton of our ladies’ eggs, know that they are pasture raised. Like actually pasture raised. You can come see them eating chunks of my hostas if you don’t believe me.
Free Range/Free Roaming
Like pasture raised, this term isn’t regulated by any governing body, but it is widely accepted to mean the chickens have access to outdoor spaces. Which sounds nice, but it can be (and often is) as little as a small door in a giant barn with access to a dirt floor piece of ground. Also, the amount of time they are allowed access to this door can be limited.
Since there is no regulation on this term, this term covers a huge variety of conditions. Your free range eggs might come from hens that are happily clucking on a big piece of grass in the fresh air. Or your free range eggs can be from hens that are in barns with less than a single square foot of space and limited access to the outdoors. Essentially, this term means nothing, except “slightly better than cage free..
I will say that in home chickenkeeping circles, free range does mean something. I don’t think I’ve ever met a home chickenkeeper who would consider their cooped chickens to be free ranging. So if you’re buying from a neighbor, keep that in mind (and other chickenkeepers, chime in if you think this observation is incorrect).
Oh, cage free is such a buzzword right now! I even saw an advertisement for mayo saying they now use cage free eggs (try making your own mayo, so yummy). Cage free does mean something (although, it isn’t a regulated term). It means exactly what it says, and nothing more. Cage free chickens are not kept in cages.
Many times, they are however, kept in large barns or warehouses with no access to the outdoors and with varying levels of humane treatment. Is cage free better from an animal welfare standpoint than caged? Yes. Is it happy chickens living a happy life? Not necessarily.
This term means absolutely nothing when it comes to eggs. Not only is it not regulated, but it just doesn’t make sense. The only time it would make sense is if you had a dozen chicken eggs next to a dozen of those plastic Easter eggs. Then you could have the labels “Natural” and “Not Natural” on the packages. Ignore this one. It doesn’t mean anything other than a marketing ploy.
This is a good place to point out that a lot of the observations on this list are related specifically to grocery store, labeled eggs. It’s entirely possible a farmer near you uses the label “natural” on their eggs and actually means something totally awesome by it. Semantics. This is where it becomes a benefit to know where your food comes from. If you pick up a dozen “natural” eggs from the farmer’s market, you can ask the farmer what they mean by “natural.” It might actually mean something to them (and you!).
Ahh, now we’re getting to terms that are actually regulated by some organization. Just like all food, “organic” is only allowed on eggs that are certified by the USDA. There is a very specific set of standards a producer must meet to be able to label their eggs certified organic. In order for eggs to be labeled organic, the chickens must be free of antibiotics and hormones, fed organic feed, live cage free, and free range.
Sounds great! But remember, “cage free” and “free range” aren’t the idyllic chicken life they have painted on the labels. Organic does not mean pasture raised. The Organic label also allows for beak cutting and forced molting (to keep the chickens laying). These practices are widely accepted in many chickenkeeping circles as inhumane treatment. Organic does not necessarily mean humane.
Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved
There are numerous independent certifying bodies for animal welfare (honestly, way too many to list here). I will say that just because an egg carton has the seal of some certification on it, it does not mean that those standards the producers reached are particularly high. Here is a good graphic with the basics of what each of the different certifications mean—don’t fall for a pretty seal on your label, know what it means before you buy.
Of all the different certifications that an egg producer can have, I personally would say that if you can find eggs that are “Certified Humane” or “Animal Welfare Approved” you are on the right path. The two organizations that do these certifications have strict standards for producers, like space and time requirements for free ranging, flock size limits, and other animal welfare protections (like no beak cutting or forced molting).
I will say that often the certification process for the Organic, Humane, and other labels can be very, very pricey for producers to do. So if you’re buying from a small farmer, and they don’t have these labels, it doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t doing the right things. It might just mean they can’t afford the fee to get certified. Again, talk to them. Ask. Learn more about what you’re eating.
Another term that means exactly nothing when it’s printed on a label. My opinion: if you want farm fresh eggs, go to a farm and buy them. That’s the only way you’ll know they are farm fresh.
Vegetarian Fed/Vegetarian Diet
This one makes me laugh, because if you’ve ever seen a chicken graze, you know that they aren’t even close to vegetarians. This isn’t a regulated term, but it typically means that chickens aren’t fed animal byproducts for feed (including chicken byproducts—it happens). Which, I suppose, is a good thing. But chickens are not naturally vegetarian, so this claim is mostly just marketing, in my opinion.
Normally, vegetarian fed chickens eat mostly a diet of corn that is supplemented with Omega-3s (more on that in a sec) and amino acids. Feeding chickens a diet of corn is cheap. And framing that unnatural diet as a benefit in a pretty font on the label is all marketing to get you to buy the eggs.
This means that chickens are fed a diet rich in omega-3 boosting foods—like flax seed. Which is cool, if you want to pay the extra $0.50 for this benefit. Interestingly enough, pasture raised eggs naturally contain upwards of two times the amount of Omega-3s that farm-raised Omega-3 eggs contain. If your egg producer is pasture raising their chickens and they are eating their natural diet of bugs, worms, and plants, they don’t need to supplement with omega-3 rich food (we don’t).
I think that about covers it. Confusing, right? I think my best advice is: if you are concerned about the welfare of the chickens that your eggs come from, find a farmer and ask how they are raised. It can be so hard to wade through all the marketing of food packaging and get a good picture of how the animals are treated. The farmer or chickenkeeper knows more about their animals than the label does!
It used to be that buying a dozen of pasture raised eggs was so expensive, but now that backyard chickenkeeping is en vogue, I’ve found that you can find high quality eggs for almost as affordable a price as the supermarket kind! I know this varies widely by region, but backyard chickenkeepers in our area sell free range eggs for $2-$3 per dozen. In my opinion, it seems like a steal to ensure those chickens are being well cared for!