Health: A Buyer's Guide to Eggs
How to decode the carton claims
Animal-welfare seals and catchphrases appear like confetti on egg cartons. Some cartons are even painted with bucolic farm scenes. What’s fluff? What’s real? Here, we decode the labels.
Per the USDA, these eggs come from hens that are housed in a “building, room or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water and provides freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” There are no requirements for the minimum amount of space per hen or any outdoor access.
The USDA defines free-range eggs as eggs that come from hens housed in an area allowing unlimited access to food, water and the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced or covered with netting. As with cage-free, there are no minimum space requirements or “furnishings,” nor description of how hens can exit the building.
Hens are uncaged, free to roam in their houses and have access to the outdoors. They eat an organic diet. But there are no animal-welfare standards beyond that. And 80% of organic eggs are currently produced in industrial-style farms where hens have little access to the outside, sometimes only a small covered “porch,” says a Cornucopia Institute report.
Hormone use on laying hens is prohibited across the board, so this label can only be used if it is followed by a statement like “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones,” which can be in tiny print or indicated by an asterisk somewhere else on the package.
Producers must provide the USDA with documentation proving the hens are raised without antibiotics. Most well-managed facilities don’t use antibiotics, say poultry experts, because the drugs would get into the eggs, which is prohibited. It’s common, however, to vaccinate hens against contagious diseases.
United Egg Producers Certified
UEP is the egg companies’ trade group and stipulates how birds are handled, transported, euthanized, etc. It certifies over 80% of caged birds, so this seal indicates the status quo for chicken treatment. For example, hens can be raised in as little as 67 square inches of space each (that’s a little larger than an 8-inch square).
American Humane Certified
The American Humane Association certifies egg producers with its own standards for caged, cage-free and enriched colony housing (a type of cage that contains perches, scratch pads and nest boxes). They’re better than UEP standards but not as rigorous as those of other animal welfare groups.
Humane Farm Animal Care requires no cages (ever). Hens must be able to dust-bathe, perch and have secluded nest boxes, among other requirements. Each hen has at minimum 1 square foot of space.
Animal Welfare Approved
These are the most rigorous standards. All birds are cage-free, get at least 4 square feet each and have continuous outdoor access. The maximum flock size is 500 birds, and only family farms can participate.
There are no specific guidelines and no third-party audits for “pasture-raised,” nor is it USDA-regulated.
Nothing is added to eggs, so all eggs are technically “natural,” says the USDA.
Some third parties have stipulations around vegetarian feed, but the term isn’t USDA-regulated. Plus, chickens are omnivores, so eating bugs, worms or even small animals is natural (and key for certain nutrients).
EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.