Egg

How to Read an Egg Carton (And Why Terms Like "Cage-Free" Are Misleading)

December 14, 2015

I’m a well-meaning egg buyer. I know about the cruelty of cages, the terrible things that happen to chicken beaks, and the speed at which avian flu can wipe out a barn of tightly packed hens, so I’m always careful to buy cartons that advertise “Free-Range” and “Cage-Free.” But as it turns out, these terms can have confusing definitions when it comes to chicken welfare and the quality of the egg.

Photo by James Ransom

Some of the most common egg cartons terms imply a much happier hen environment than is actually practiced. While cage-free environments are a step up from the battery cages that still dominate the egg industry, they aren’t much better. Before she got into the egg farming, Betsy Babcock of Handsome Brook Farm in upstate New York believed that "'cage-free' eggs came from chickens outdoors.” Not necessarily so: Even though organic eggs require outdoor access for the hens, the access is so minimal that most of the chickens never go outside. Many chickens, she said, “have absolutely no access to the outdoors and have as little as 1 1/4 square feet indoors, and they’re kept in dimly lit barns with no windows.” At organic free-range farms, chickens “get a window and access to the outside which means they can go out to a little patio strip of grass.”

It's important to note however, that this is not the case with all cage-free eggs. When I met with Serena Schaffner, a representative from the American Egg Board, she told me that some cage-free operations do grant access to the outdoors and give hens plenty of space, even though it's not required for that particular certification.

Photo by James Ransom

There's a growing movement among egg farmers to provide an environment to hens like the ones we imagine when we read these terms—a movement for farms provide at least 108.9 square feet per chicken outdoors during the day and two square feet indoors in the coop at night, for chickens to roam through fields munching on grass and bugs.

Photo by James Ransom

Of course there are several options out there, and pasture-raised eggs are among the most expensive. The best route? Learning what you can before you buy. Here’s how to navigate the evolving terms often seen on egg cartons, according to Betsy, the Egg Nutrition Center, and The Incredible Edible Egg—and what some of the biggest ones mean:

The numerous egg options available at one of our editor's local bodegas. Photo by Amanda Sims

Living Conditions:

Conventional: Eggs laid by hens in small enclosures in windowless hen houses, sometimes with barely enough room to flap their wings. These are often the least expensive eggs available.

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Cage-Free: Eggs from hens that are not confined to battery cages. The hens must have enough room to turn around.

Free-Range: Eggs from hens that have access to the outdoors and may forage for grass and bugs, but this can sometimes mean the all the hens in one barn have to share as little room as a tiny screened-in porch that fits only a few chickens out of thousands.

Pasture-Raised: Eggs laid by hens who have at access to pasture area. However, this term is not recognized by the USDA, so while Betsy defines "pasture-raised" as having access to at least 108.9 square feet outdoors per chicken, she said she’s seen “pasture-raised" egg farms that “provide as little as 14 square feet.” The best way to find out how much land the chickens are offered is to either check the farm’s website where the numbers are often listed, or to call them directly and ask.

Certified Organic: This is one of the only federally regulated egg terms, and requires that the hens have access to the outdoors—but, as with "free-range," take the term "access to the outdoors" with a grain of salt. The feed they’re fed must also be certified organic.

Photo by James Ransom

Color:

Yolks: While yolk color was once a great indicator of the quality of an egg—with bright orange eggs indicating free-range chickens with access to grass—some caged hens are now fed traces of alfalfa to artificially up the plant feed in the diet and yield a brighter yolk.

Shells: Brown and white eggs have no nutritional or flavor differences.

Dates and Numbers:

Expiration Date: The dates marked on egg cartons are an indicator of how long they should be kept on store shelves, but according to the Egg Nutrition Center, eggs can safely be eaten up to three weeks past the expiration date.

Julian Date: Many egg cartons are stamped with an eleven-digit number known as the Julian Date, which includes information about the day the eggs were packed. The first three numbers will tell you the day, which go from 001 for January 1st to 365 for December 31st. Eggs can safely be eaten up to five weeks beyond this date.

Size:

“The age of the chicken determines the size of the eggs they lay,” Betsy told me. Chickens start by laying what they call peewee eggs (15 ounces per dozen), which are usually not sold and are almost all whites, and can lay up to jumbo eggs (30 ounces per dozen). Around 20- to 25-weeks old, they’ll start laying large eggs. There is no difference in the nutrition, proportionally, but keep in mind that most baking recipes refer to large eggs.

Editors' Note: We've made changes to this article that include editing content from one of the sources, as we felt the original article was too focused on one source of information.

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11 Comments

Susan T. March 8, 2016
There was no comment about the CA SEFS compliant rating on the egg carton. I was under the impression that CA has some very strict guidelines for raising chickens so I always look for this designation.
 
Alice C. March 7, 2016
I apologize for asking something that is a bit tangential to the point and discussion of this article, but I have a question about white vs. brown eggs. I understand it has to do with different species of chickens, but I find that the white egg shells look fragile with slightly translucent spot/areas as if there may be something deficient in the hens' diets or something not so healthy about them, but not so with the brown eggs. What's up with that?
 
Lynn C. March 3, 2016
The sanctimonious tone of this article got to me...we have a small flock of hens - usually no more than 10-12. The kitchen scraps they eat-we eat-and we don't eat organically. They don't have 108 sq feet of roaming space per chicken - even if they did - we're in Australia so there ain't much green anywhere now anyway. Who cares if they have 108 sq ft or 14 sq ft - they're chickens! As long as they have access to good food, clean water, and space to exercise - but not always - there are foxes about...we shouldn't have to feel guilty. When I have to buy eggs, I go free range...who can afford Pasture Eggs?
 
Geri P. March 3, 2016
I buy Pasture Eggs from a local farmer, I bake with Cage Free, as the farm eggs are $9.00 a dozen.
 
softenbrownsugar March 3, 2016
I did not know that 'Certified Organic' meant they had to have access to the outdoors. I just thought it meant they were fed organically but still lived indoors. I have studied the 'Certified Organic' cartons to see if they have access to outside, but it isn't stated. For some reason 'Free Range' always fit the bill for me, and that's what I buy. It certainly doesn't sound like any choices are terrific.
 
Chuckanut March 3, 2016
Now, how about a taste test.
 
Rachel December 15, 2015
I've either raised poultry or been around the poultry industry for my entire life. When I was a kid, we raised and butchered 100 or so chickens by hand every summer, and as an adult, I've helped my mother build a business that now produces over 75,000 turkeys per year. However, it frustrates me greatly to see how little people understand normal poultry behaviors, habits, and disease vectors. You mention "...the speed at which avian flu can wipe out a barn of tightly packed hens." I would like to point out that it does not matter how tightly or loosely packed the birds are due to highly pathogenic transmission methods for certain diseases (bird flu). For example, my mother's flocks do not live in cages and they are far from "tightly packed," but her flock was wiped out in a matter of hours from avian influenza. Most farmers that produce eggs and meat on economies of scale are trying to limit the exposure to disease that their poultry has, and preventing contact with wild birds drastically reduces the chance of disease. Food safety is the biggest priority in the industry and allowing chickens or turkeys to roam in a field works well for some farmers, and I applaud their efforts to provide consumers with choices, but making it sound as if the farmers who do use barns or confinements, does not accurately represent their reason: Maintaining biosecurity protocols to safeguard the worldwide food supply. <br /><br />I'd ask you to reconsider your wording stating that feeding alfalfa is "artificial," and mixing feed is somehow a way to hoodwink consumers. It makes it sound as if Alfalfa is a chemical not a plant that contains fiber, xanthophylls, calcium, phosphorus, and vitamins among other benefits. Most farmers provide their flocks with different feed mixes using grains, animal and plant-derived fats, dehydrated alfalfa meal, protein sources such as bone meal, etc. to optimize their chicken or turkeys' feed-to-output conversion ratios. <br /><br />On a related note, it's the same thing with "antibiotic free" labeling; many consumers do not realize that it is against Federal law in the United States to allow meat with antibiotic traces into the food supply. By slapping an "antibiotic-free" label on something, it means you can charge more for that product, but it does not mean that withholding antibiotics is a humane or efficient way to raise animals. If anything, it removes the ability and flexibility of veterinarians to treat preventable diseases and limit their transmission to other farms.
 
Kt4 December 14, 2015
I'm surprised you didn't bring up that "vegetarian" label. It's amazing how many people think chickens aren't meat eaters and that a vegetarian diet is more healthy for these omnivores.
 
Stephanie N. December 14, 2015
What about Certified Humane? <br /><br /> For the past few years, we've had our own chickens, but we gave them away this year. I have such a hard time trying figure out which eggs to buy. I usually go with local certified humane.
 
andyandollie December 14, 2015
I would be interested to know about "Certified Humane", as well. If I can't make it to the farmer's market, I usually buy Certified Humane eggs at the store.
 
Author Comment
Leslie S. December 14, 2015
There are several terms like Certified Humane that refer to the animal care (another is American Humane Certified). Certified Humane is run by a non-profit that puts its seal on eggs have come from a farm that meets a set of standards for animal treatment. Here's more information about their standards: http://certifiedhumane.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Std14.Layers.5A.pdf