In any given grocery store, the egg section is filled with dozens of options. Not only do you have to choose between jumbo or extra-large and white or brown, you also need to sort through dozens of labels that hint at the origin of the eggs. Some of these labels give useful information about how eggs are produced, but some are just marketing ploys designed to conjure up idyllic images of happy hens roaming freely on green pastures. So how can you tell the difference, and which eggs should you choose? Read on for our comprehensive guide to grocery store egg labels.
Common egg labels and their meaning
According to the USDA, “Free-Range” only means that hens are “allowed access to the outside.” Technically, a producer could put in a few small windows and call birds “Free-Range.” This label isn’t a guarantee of animal welfare, of how much time hens spend outside, or of the quality of the outdoor space.
Pasture raised eggs are a step above “Free-Range” and “Cage-Free.” This label is a good indicator that birds are mostly raised outdoors, with the ability to roam and forage. However, the requirements for this label are not established by the USDA, so it’s best if it is also attached to an animal welfare certification.
To use the label “Cage-Free,” hens can not be confined to a typical caged housing system. They must have access to roam the facility in which they’re housed. This label does not specify or guarantee how much space they’re given, so they’re often cramped and cannot roam freely. It also does not guarantee access to the outdoors, and is not enforced by inspection.
The USDA regulates use of the term “organic” on egg labels. That means these eggs are produced in accordance with defined standards, and require on-farm inspections. Certified Organic eggs come from hens that are fed only organic feed, have never received antibiotics or hormones, and are considered free-range. There is still lots of room for variation from Certified Organic producer to producer. For more information, the Cornucopia Institute has a scorecard.
U.S. federal law requires that hens be raised without supplemental hormones, so while this label is true for any carton labeled as such, it’s also true for any carton not labeled as “No Hormones.”
“Enriched with” Omega 3
This term indicates that the hens were fed a diet with an Omega-3 supplement, often flax seeds. It does not offer insight into hen treatment or egg nutrition.
Chickens are not naturally vegetarians; they are omnivorous. Left to their own devices in a pasture, they’ll eat plenty of worms and bugs. That’s why you won’t typically see this claim on pasture raised eggs. When hens are raised on an entirely vegetarian diet (which in factory farm settings typically means corn and soy) without synthetic supplementation, they risk being nutritionally deficient. In extreme cases, they may fall sick or start seeking out protein elsewhere—typically by starting to peck at other hens.
Natural, All Natural, Fresh, or Farm Fresh
All of the above are mostly marketing terms. The only information they really provide is that you’re getting a real egg from a real hen. These terms don’t offer any facts about how the hens were raised, what they ate, or how they were treated.
Animal welfare certifications
Including: Certified Humane Raised and Handled, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, Global Animal Partnership (GAP), United Egg Producers (UEP) Certified and UEP Certified Cage Free
These labels are defined and enforced by third-party animal welfare organizations. In order to use this label on a product, farms must pass an inspection. Because of this, these labels are a good indicator of hen quality of life.
Other egg labels you may see
Grade AA, A, or B
Egg grades are not indicators of hen welfare or nutrition, but only the quality of the egg itself. These grades are based on the shell, white, yolk and air cell in the egg. Each grade is are defined by the USDA
- Grade AA – “thick, firm whites and high, round yolks” and strong shells
- Grade A – same as Grade AA, but “reasonably firm” whites (usually sold in stores)
- Grade B – “thin whites and wider yolks”, shells may be stained
Extra large, large, and other sizes
Egg sizes are also not indicators of welfare or nutrition. These size labels range from Jumbo to Peewee (yes, really), and are defined by the USDA by minimum net weight per dozen and minimal net weight for individual eggs. They apply to all egg grades
So how should you choose?
Labels alone can’t tell you everything. If possible, look for additional information or third party certifications, like Certified Organic and animal welfare certifications, to know where your eggs are coming from.
About our eggs
Blue Apron eggs come from Vital Farms. All of our eggs are Certified Humane Raised and Handled ® pasture raised. These labels require that hens be in pasture year round and for a minimum of 6 hours per day (weather permitting), that each hen has 108 square feet of pasture, and that pasture be covered mainly with living vegetation. It also guarantees that hens have access to a shelter to roost without fear of predators. The Certified Humane program is run by Humane Farm Animal Care, a non-profit certification organization, and enforced by on-site inspections.
Blue Apron chose this partnership because we believe that access to a pasture is critical to high welfare for hens, and humane treatment of animals in our supply chain is a Blue Apron priority.