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Egg Labels

Reading Between the Lines

According to a 2003 Gallup poll, the majority of Americans support passing strict laws to protect farmed animals. Additional polls further reveal that most consumers are willing to pay more for what they perceive to be more humane products. However, the various labels, logos, and certification stamps found on egg cartons lining our grocers' shelves are not only overwhelming, but they can also be deceptive.

In fact, animal welfare claims on egg cartons are currently unregulated in the United States, enabling producers to use phrases such as “animal-friendly” or “naturally-raised” even if those eggs come from birds confined inside tiny wire cages. Learn about how you can help demand truth in labeling on egg cartons and require producers to fully disclose “eggs from caged hens.”

Below are excerpts from the Humane Society of the United States' "Brief Guide to Egg Carton Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare" to help you read between the lines.


Cage Free:
The label "cage free" does not mean there are any standards or auditing mechanisms behind it. As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as "cage free" are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They have the ability to engage in some of their natural behaviors such as walking and nesting. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Forced molting through starvation is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

Certified Humane: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

Certified Organic: The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access (although there have been concerns about lax enforcement, with some large-scale producers not providing birds meaningful access to the outdoors). They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Forced molting through starvation is permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

Fertile: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.

Free Range: While the USDA has defined the meaning of "free range" for some poultry products, there are no standards in "free range" egg production. Typically, free range egg-laying hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have outdoor access. They can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. However, there is no information on stocking density, the frequency or duration of outdoor access, or the quality of the land accessible to the birds. There is no information regarding what the birds can be fed. Forced molting through starvation is permitted. There is no third-party auditing.

Free Roaming: Also known as "free range," the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in "free roaming" egg production. This essentially means the hens are cage free. There is no third-party auditing.

Natural: This label has no relevance to animal welfare.

Omega-3 Enriched: This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

United Egg Producers Certified [note: this was formerly called "Animal Care Certified"]: The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits routine cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. By 2008, hens laying these eggs will be afforded 67 square inches of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even fully stretching their wings. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.

Vegetarian-Fed: These birds are provided a more natural feed than that received by most laying hens, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions.

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