Egg carton claims can be enough to make your head spin. Free-range. Organic. Photos of fluffy hens relaxing outdoors. These days, picking up a dozen eggs isn’t as simple as it used to be. There’s a huge variety of eggs available, and a whole lot of claims being made on the cartons. But all too often, what we believe those claims mean is far from the truth, which impacts not only the hens laying your eggs, but your health, too. When it comes to the health benefits of eggs, though, you can’t always believe what you read on the label.
Egg Carton Claims: The Strongest Meaning
As consumers, we’re told to read the labels to truly understand what it is that we’re buying. But when it comes to eggs, labels are super confusing. We spoke with Marie Burcham, a livestock specialist at Cornucopia Institute, to get a better understanding of what these claims mean..
Organic: Because “organic” is a term regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there are specific criteria these eggs must meet. Organic eggs come from chickens that haven’t been given drugs or hormones to promote growth. They’re free from antibiotics and arsenic, which is sometimes used to control parasites in non-organic birds. Organic hens also must be fed certified organic grain. This ensures the grain is non-GMO and comes from organic seeds grown using only organic growing methods.
Feeding chickens by-products of mammals or other poultry is also prohibited in organics. While the chickens aren’t required to have pasture space, but they must have access to the outdoors. (1) Technically, this means that all organic chickens are free range.
Egg Carton Claims: Semi-Confusing Claims
Pastured: While truly pastured eggs are usually considered best eggs, there’s no real definition of that term, either. Because it’s prohibited to lie on labels, these birds are definitely allowed outside, but there is wiggle room between what different companies do, according to Burcham.
In general, however, pastured birds spend their time on dirt or grass. They usually live in bigger barns with big doors to the outside so they can easily come and go as they please. The cream of the crop pastured birds have mobile coops where the birds are moved to a fresh patch of grass regularly. That way, they can enjoy their feed plus other goodies natural to a chicken’s diet, like insects and worms, which makes up a significant part of a bird’s diet. These are the best of the best, Burcham says.
Vegetarian-fed: This type of diet for birds came into vogue when, in the late ‘90s, people learned that factory-farmed chickens were being fed animal byproducts. (We’re talking things like cow organs, which were ground up and served as feed.) As a result, many egg producers switched to vegetarian feed, which usually consists of corn and soybean meal. It seemed like a step in the right direction.
The problem with this is that chickens are not vegetarians. (2) They are omnivores and, when they’re left to their own devices, scratch at the ground to find small bugs and animals, wild seeds and worms. These foods have high levels of methionine, an essential amino acid that the birds must source from the foods they eat. When they don’t get enough methionine, the birds get stressed and begin pecking at each other to try and get their protein, turning barns into bloodbaths.
Cage-free: Cage-free is pretty straightforward: the birds aren’t kept in cages. In fact, the egg industry overall is moving away from battery cages, the traditional method of housing egg-laying hens, and towards barns.
However, the alternative isn’t necessarily what consumers envision when they hear cage-free, said Marie. They might still be living in deplorable conditions: overcrowded barns, no access to the outdoors and a rapid spread of disease. (3)
Free-range: Free range sounds like a chicken resort — easy, breezy chickens roaming around. However, the USDA’s definition of free-range eggs is pretty broad: “Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” (4)
Outdoor access often means a tiny one-door porch area where just a few birds can be out at a time, said Marie. When there are 10,000 to 20,000 birds in one barn, not every bird is going to have access in a given day.
Antibiotic-free: Similar to hormone free, this is really misleading. Only three antibiotics are approved for egg-laying hens and most never receive antibiotics. Additionally, if they are sick and given antibiotics, the eggs are free from any residue. Organic eggs are always antibiotic free. (5)
Where trouble occurs is that factory-farmed chickens are often given antibiotics before they get sick, which occurs often due to the terrible conditions they’re raised in. Overfeeding antibiotics to these hens can lead to antibiotic-resistant diseases in both chickens and humans, which are becoming more common and more worrisome.
Egg Carton Claims: The Downright Misleading
No added hormones: All commercial eggs in the U.S. are hormone free, as egg-laying hens don’t get hormones. (6)
Natural: Most often seen on cartons of factory-farmed conventional eggs, “natural” means that the eggs have no artificial ingredients, added colors and are minimally processed. Surprise! All eggs meet this definition. This has no bearing on how they’re raised or what they’re fed. (7)
Is your head spinning yet? There’s also the matter of “grading” on egg cartons. For Marie, Animal Welfare Approved is the gold standard, as they have excellent requirements to meet their standards: access to growing green vegetation, ranging and foraging areas, well-ventilated housing, the ability to engage in foraging behavior and more. It’s also verified by a third party, whereas many other “certifications” are created by the egg industry themselves.
A Greener World has a fantastic guide that outlines some of the more common claims and welfare certifications as well.
So those photos of chickens living in luxury on the farm that are plastered on the egg carton or the claims of “farm-fresh” eggs? Well, they don’t mean much at all.
The Most Egg-cellent Choice
So what is the best egg? Pastured organic eggs are the best eggs, both for the chickens and your health. Because these chickens eat an omnivorous diet, filled with organic grain and plenty of bug-pecking opportunities, they are happier and healthier — and the eggs they lay are more nutritious, too.
“Whenever livestock eat something that’s better for them, they’re going to produce a superior product,” said Marie. “You see it in everything from grass-fed beef to milk and with pastured eggs.”
Science agrees. One study found that eggs produced by chickens who forage in pastures had a “significant effect on all nutrients…except cholesterol.” The pastured eggs had double the amount of vitamin E, more than double the omega-3f fatty acids and more vitamin A than the birds fed a commercial diet.
Pastured organic eggs do come at a price; they’re generally quite a bit more expensive than conventional eggs, which can be hard to swallow, particularly when consumers are used to paying so little for eggs. “Unfortunately, people have gotten used to cheap food and a lot of it,” said Marie.
It’s a classic case of supply and demand. If more people ask for pastured eggs, farmers will be more willing to invest in the resources necessary to make it happen — pastured eggs require more labor and not as many chickens can be raised at one time.
Aside from the price, access to pastured, organic eggs can be difficult, particularly for folks living in major cities, where the nearest farm is hours away.
“Even if the consumer wants something that’s higher quality, they might not have access to it,” said Marie. “It’s frustrating if you want to change the world with your dollar and you can’t.”
If pastured organic eggs aren’t a possibility, pastured eggs are the next best bet, followed by organic eggs, then free range, cage free and, finally, conventional. Buying from local farmers is a good idea, as you can ask what free-range means to them — for a small farmer, it might be very different than a mass producer’s definition. But generally, if you can’t purchase at least organic-level eggs, it’s best to skip them altogether.
The Ugly Side of Factory Farming for Eggs
Just how bad are the lives of factory farmed, conventional chickens? Downright horrifying.
For starters, chickens raised for egg laying are often packed in sheds and barns with 100,000 other birds and shoved into battery cages with another five to 10 birds. These chickens have no room to spread their wings, turn around or move. (10)
In fact, the amount of space they are given amounts to that of a sheet of paper. As this Huffington Post article puts it, these conditions are equal to what would happen if you spent your entire life in a cage the size of your bathtub — with four more people sharing with you.
Egg-laying chickens in factory-farmed conditions don’t live nearly as long as their pastured counterparts. While lifespans depend on the chicken breed — some can live for a decade! — about 2-4 years is considered an average lifespan. For large commercial farms, that number drops to about a year, said Marie. And for chickens who are factory farmed? “Surviving a year is unheard of.”
Keeping birds in these overcrowded, inhumane conditions also spells trouble for human consumers. Outbreaks of diseases like have been attributed to the unsanitary conditions at massive egg farms. After one major outbreak of salmonella in 2010 that affected as many as 1,500 people, the FDA issued a report on the two Iowa farms that were suspected to be the root cause.
The report found that at one of the farms, chicken manure was packed 4 to 8 feet high. (11) There were live rodents and mice at the farms and flies on the egg belts and the eggs themselves. Wildlife had access to the barns and non-chicken feathers were found at the farms — these are two of the biggest concerns for salmonella, which begins in feces.
Additionally, other unexpected residue might wind up in your eggs. One study of chicken feather meal found that they often contained fluorquinolones, a banned class of antibiotics — you might recognize one of them as Cipro. (12) These aren’t allowed in poultry because of the risk of superbugs, and yet. The study also found that a third of the chicken feathers contained an antihistamine that’s the active ingredient in Benadryl, and many feathers contained Tylenol’s active ingredient, acetaminophen.
These factory-farmed chickens are often given these drugs as a way to reduce the anxiety that comes with being shoved in tiny cages for 95 percent of your life. Granted, the study looked at feather meal, not actual eggs, but it’s not a stretch to think that some of this residue will end up in the eggs these doped-up chickens are producing.
If you’re curious unsure about what the egg conditions look like near you, this map allows you to choose animal filters and see which parts of the country (and your individual county) produce the most factory-farmed eggs.
As an average consumer, what can you do to ensure you’re getting the best eggs possible? As I mentioned earlier, pasture organic eggs are best, followed by organic.
If you have a farmers’ market near you, chat with the egg producers there, said Marie. Ask them about how the chickens are raised: whether they have true outdoor access, whether they can engage in their normal behaviors, like foraging for food, dust bathing and socializing with other chickens. Ask your local supermarket about increasing the options for more organic, local eggs.
Raising the bar for these animals isn’t just beneficial for the chickens, but for humans as well. It means we’re enjoying eggs that have more nutritional value and carry less risk of disease than those that come from factory farms. It might also mean, at least temporarily, curtailing our egg consumption.
After all, as Marie put it, “Chickens are really smart and social and gregarious. They really deserve better than to be crammed in cages so that we can get eggs.”