Organic eggs


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When egg prices reached record highs at the beginning of the year, the country’s largest egg producer, Cal-Maine Foods, saw a jump in specialty egg sales. Conventional eggs had become more expensive than their organic and free-range counterparts. But now that egg prices have dropped, consumers might wonder: Is it still worth it to shell out for premium eggs? We’ll answer that question while also explaining which labels are the most meaningful.

Free-Range Eggs vs. Cage-Free vs. Conventional Eggs

  • Free-Range Eggs: Free-range hens must have continuous access to the outdoors during their egg-laying cycle, access to fresh food and water, and the ability to move throughout indoor houses, according to the USDA. That said, the outdoor area may be small, covered, and crowded.

  • Cage-Free Eggs: Hens that are raised cage-free live in indoor houses, but the USDA doesn’t specify how much space each bird should have. Consequently, hen houses are often crowded and have multiple stories. Still, this is an improvement over conventional caged hens.

  • Conventional Eggs: The vast majority of egg-laying hens in the U.S. live in battery cages that offer as little as 67 square inches of space. That’s smaller than a piece of printer paper. Because they have such limited room, the hens can’t spread their wings — let alone engage in natural behaviors like nesting, perching, or dust bathing. While conventional eggs tend to be the cheapest, they’re the least humane. States like California, Massachusetts, and Michigan have outlawed battery cages, joining Mexico, Canada, the European Union, New Zealand, and other countries that have high animal welfare standards.

The Upshot

While the conditions for free-range hens aren’t perfect, they’re far better than what chickens raised in battery cages experience. And unlike meaningless labels like “pasture-raised” — we’ll talk about that in a second — free-range conditions are regulated by the USDA. For those reasons, it makes sense to pay extra for free-range or cage-free eggs if you care about animal welfare.

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Egg Production and Chick Production - Laying hensPhoto credit: chayakorn lotongkum/istockphoto

Pasture-Raised, Farm-Fresh, and Other Labels

  • Pasture-Raised Eggs: Since there’s no standard definition for pasture-raised eggs, the label isn’t meaningful.

  • Farm-Fresh Eggs: Again, there isn’t any regulatory body that stipulates what qualifies as a farm-fresh egg, so the label isn’t useful.

  • Natural Eggs: All eggs are natural no matter how hens are raised, so this label is meaningless, too.

  • Hormone-Free Eggs: By law, laying hens can’t receive hormones, meaning that this label technically applies to all eggs. Ignore this designation.

  • Organic Eggs: Per the USDA’s regulations, eggs that come from organic hens must be able to roam freely and have access to the outdoors. These chickens are also fed an organic diet, meaning that the feed hasn’t been produced with conventional pesticides or fertilizers. Given the label’s clear regulatory criteria, it’s worth shopping for organic eggs if you’re concerned about pesticide use and/or animal welfare.

The Upshot

Product labels like farm fresh and natural aren’t meaningful labels because they aren’t clearly defined or regulated. Rather, focus on USDA badges, such as organic, cage free, and free range.

Poultry farm with chicken. Husbandry, housing business for the purpose of farming meat, White chicken Farming feed in indoor housing. Live chicken for meat and egg production inside a storage.Photo credit: chayakorn lotongkum/istockphoto

Voluntary Certifications

  • United Egg Producers (UEP) Certified: UEP is a cooperative of American farmers that includes more than 90% of domestic egg producers. Although UEP Certified eggs adhere to a list of hen well-being criteria, critics point out that the standards don’t go far enough. For example, UEP Certified producers can house chickens in battery cages that offer each animal as little as 67 square inches of space.

The Upshot

While voluntary, private labels do require members to meet certain standards, it’s important to know exactly what each organization asks of its farmers. Just because an egg producer is “Certified Humane” doesn’t mean their eggs are cage free, for instance.

The Bottom Line

The majority of laying hens in the U.S. live in crowded battery cages, barely able to move. Nobel Laureate Konrad Lorenz compared these conditions to “torture,” adding, "For the person who knows something about animals it is truly heart-rending to watch how a chicken tries again and again to crawl beneath her fellow cagemates to search there in vain for cover.”

As consumers, we can advocate for stricter animal agriculture regulations while also shopping for eggs that already meet more humane standards. This doesn’t mean you have to buy the most expensive eggs at the grocery store. Instead, focus on meaningful labels that hold egg producers to clearly defined standards.

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