Deciphering egg labels can leave you with a headache! Pasture range, free-range, organic, vegetarian....so many options to chose from. It is definitely confusing to choose the 'best' egg based on your priorities and values.
What are Pasture Raised Eggs exactly?
Theoretically, pasture-raised eggs should be when chickens have constant outdoor access to do their 'chicken thing'. This means foraging, dust bathing, eating grass when available, spreading their wings, and hunting for bugs. Unfortunately, it is hard to find true pasture-raised eggs. There are many confusing labels that do not easily indicate what their standards are. So I have written out the most common standards when it comes to egg labels and what they mean.
The Grading Standards
The USDA has a set of standards for eggs and a grading system that you commonly have seen on egg cartons. This includes free-range and cage-free. Unfortunately, many organizations have uncovered that just because a carton of eggs is labeled as free-range or cage-free, it does not mean that the hens have any better of a life than those that are not labeled as free-range or cage-free. This is why private organizations have created their own standards for egg labeling based on the hens' life and environment.
The USDA Standards
According to Cornucopia institute free-range birds in commercial hatcheries never actually go outside. If they do have access to the outdoors, it might be a small screened-in porch without any actual grass.
|USDA AMA Free Range:||Eggs labeled as “free-range” must be produced by hens who have unlimited access to food, water, and access to the outdoors during their egg-laying cycle.|
|USDA AMA Cage Free:||The USDA states that eggs labeled as cage-free “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” No outdoor requirement. No space requirement either.|
|Organic Eggs||Fed organic feed. Must be cage-free|
Below are some private agencies/organizations that have decided to take labeling a step further by having their own set of standards.
This organization has three levels of certifications for commercial farms. All prohibit forced molting through starvation but allow beak cutting. There is third-party auditing that verifies compliance.
|Free range||Having at least 6 hours of outdoor access and a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per bird|
|Cage free||Requires “1.5 square feet per hen, litter for dust bathing and perches for the birds,|
|Pasture raised||Requires 6-hours of outdoor space and 2-square-feet per bird.|
Animal Welfare approved has the highest level of standards for commercial farms.
- Prohibits forced molting through starvation and beak trimming
- Flocks must contain fewer than 500 birds
- Each hen must have 1.8 square feet (259 square inches) of indoor floor space and must be able to nest, perch and dust-bathe.
- Birds must have continuous access to an outdoor area for ranging and foraging.
- The outdoor space must be covered by growing vegetation and must provide at least 4 square feet (576 square inches) of space per bird
This a program of the American Humane Association. prohibits forced molting through starvation but allows beak cutting. Third-party auditing verifies compliance. This certification system has four different labels and standards.
|Enriched Colony Cages||Birds must have 0.8 square feet (116 square inches) in each individual “furnished cage”: smaller than a legal-sized sheet of paper. Suppliers must follow some requirements for perching and nesting boxes|
|Cage- Free||Birds are uncaged in barns but may be kept indoors all the time. Each hen must have 1.25 square feet (180 square inches) of floor space and access to perches and nesting boxes|
|Free-Range||Each hen must have 21.8 square feet (3,139 square inches) of outdoor space. No minimum period of outdoor access is specified|
|Pasture Raised||Each hen must have 108 square feet (15,552 square inches) of outdoor space on a pasture with a substantial cover of living vegetation. No minimum period of outdoor access is specified|
So you may be asking, which eggs should I purchase? If you are passionate about sustainability and animal welfare, the Animal Welfare Approved by a Greener World has the highest standards and the best of what you will find at the grocery shelves. The private organizations definitely have better standards than just the USDA standards.
If you are lucky enough to be able to purchase eggs directly from a farmer either via the farmers market, your local co-op, or your neighbor that is your best bet for purchasing the most humanely raised eggs. There is research demonstrating that true pasture-raised eggs are more nutritious than eggs from commercial farms without any additional welfare standards, but not much research that USDA free-range is much healthier than commercial farms without any additional standards.