Unless you have a chicken coop in your backyard, or the access to and budget for farm-fresh eggs every day, you’re probably spending some time in the supermarket egg aisle. And if you’re spending time in the supermarket egg aisle, you’re probably familiar with the assault of qualifiers and descriptors—Cage-free! Hormone-Free! Free-range! Local!—that awaits you there. Here’s what they all mean, and how to navigate them efficiently—so you can get to the rest of your grocery list.
Cage-free, a term regulated by the USDA, means that the eggs come from hens that, put simply, aren’t caged: they can “freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle, but [do] not have access to the outdoors.” Considering the conventional cage is 8 ½ by 11 inches, or the size of a piece of paper, this seems like a better lifestyle—but there are down sides, too; according to All About Eggs by Rachel Khong, cage-free facilities have more hen-on-hen violence and lower air quality than facilities that use cages.
Free-range, another USDA term, means that the eggs come from hens that have some sort of access to the outdoors. However, it doesn’t mean the hens actually go outdoors, or that the outdoor space is more than a small, fenced-in area with a netted cover.
Pasture-raised is not a term regulated by the USDA; however, if the carton says “pasture-raised” and also includes stamps with “Certified Humane” and/or “Animal Welfare Approved,” it means that each hen was given 108 square feet of outdoor space, as well as barn space indoors. This is pretty much as close to the bucolic, E-I-E-O farm vibe you’ll get when dealing with large-scale egg producers, so if you’re looking to support those practices, keep a look out for those labels.
For eggs to be Local, they must come from a flock located less than four hundred miles from the processing facility or within the same state. And for eggs to be Organic, the only stipulation is that they must come from hens who are fed an organic diet. Amount of space per hen, access to the outdoors—neither of those are specified or required, though many organic eggs are also at least free-range.
When it comes to eggs labeled Vegetarian-Fed, it’s worth noting that chickens are actually omnivorous; they love worms and bugs and larvae and other crawly things. However, in the mass-scale production sense, they’re not necessarily doing Whole30—they’re getting fed animal byproducts, like feather meal or chicken litter. So depending on the context, vegetarian-fed can actually be the lesser of two evils.
Hormone-free means that the hen wasn’t administered hormones, which isn’t particularly commendable—considering that hormones and steroids are already banned by the FDA. No Added Antibiotics is another funny term, because very few hens are administered antibiotics—and those that do end up being “diverted from human consumption” anyways.
So, given all of this information…what should you buy? Cartons stamped with the Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved seal are good bets—both of which are administered by third-party groups. When it comes to brands, Vital Farms, Family Homestead, Oliver’s Organic, Happy Egg Co., and Pete and Gerry’s all have particularly good reputations, as well as Safeway’s cage-free eggs and Kirkland organic eggs at Costco.