Chicken & Egg

Understanding the Egg Carton Label | NationofChange
March 16, 2013
With so many different labels imprinted on egg cartons, it’s not only confusing, but also leaves consumers wondering which eggs to purchase. Certified organic, free-range or cage-free eggs are just a few of the labels that can be found on egg cartons in the dairy section of grocery stores. While an egg is no longer just an egg, navigating through each label to find the healthiest choice is a consumer’s ultimate goal.

In 2011, more than 79 billion table eggs were produced by egg farmers in the U.S., with concentration in the Midwest and additional production in Pennsylvania, California and Texas, according to the Congressional Research Service Report for Congress (CSR). The CSR report also determined that 95 percent of egg production is by conventional cage systems whose concept originated in the 1950s. In this form of production, hens are housed in wire cages, which hold up to 10 egg-laying hens and have “automated feeding, watering and egg collection systems.”

New “enriched cage systems,” developed in Europe in the 1980s, makes up the other 5 percent of production. This form of production houses hens in either “cage-free” or “free-range” systems, such as barns or warehouses, where they roam free and engage in natural behaviors, according to the CSR report.

As way to regulate egg production and guarantee the health and welfare of consumers, the FDA adopted the Egg Products Inspection Act. The adopted measure assures “that eggs and egg products distributed to them and used in products consumed by them are wholesome, otherwise not adulterated, and properly labeled and packaged.” The FDA confirms that labeling of egg cartons is neither false nor misleading as prescribed. If determined otherwise, the product can be withheld and will be conclusive through final determination by way of a hearing.

Reflective of their production style, these are the most common egg carton labels and their distinguished meaning:

United Egg Producers Certified

This program, which the majority of egg farmers belong to, makes up 95 percent of all egg production. These eggs are from hens living in a 67-square inch space within a restricted wire cage. They are unable to go about their natural behavior, such as spreading their wings, and never go outdoors. There are no regulations regarding the hens’ diets, which might contain GMO grains, antibiotics and pesticides.

Certified organic

These eggs are produced from hens, which are cage-free. They are instead housed in a barn or warehouse and are required to spend time outdoors. Their diet consists of an organic, all-vegetarian feed free from antibiotics and pesticides. These eggs comply with specific regulations set by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program.

Free-Range (or Free-Roaming)

Living inside a barn or warehouse, these eggs are produced from hens that are living cage-free in a barn or warehouse and are required to receive outdoor access. The “free-range” hens engage in natural behaviors, such as nesting and foraging, but there are no restrictions regarding their diets so it’s not guaranteed their feed is free of antibiotics and pesticides, according to the Human Society.


Eggs with this label are determined to be cage-free hens, living inside barns or warehouses, who have the ability to follow their natural behaviors of “walking, nesting and spreading their wings,” according to the Humane Society. While they roam free, these hens never have access to the outdoors and there are no diet restrictions.

Omega 3 Enriched

This label on egg cartons solely refers to the hens’ diets, which are enriched with “extra omega 3-rich foods,” such as omega 3 fish and flax seeds, to make these eggs “healthier,” according to Eggland’s Best website. But there are no regulations on their diets to be free of antibiotics and pesticides, or on the hens’ living conditions.

Vegetarian Fed

This label is conducive to hens’ diets, which don’t consist of any animal byproducts and therefore, these eggs are produced from vegetarian-fed hens. But there are no regulations on the hens’ living conditions, according to the Humane Society.


This label is considered to be the most “natural” egg. Hens live in their own natural outdoor habitats, eat their natural diets and engage in natural behaviors. Yet, according to the Human Society, there is no “relevance to animal welfare.”

While each carton of eggs ranges in price, comparing nutritional facts, such as cholesterol, saturated fat and vitamin E percentages, is one way to find the healthiest value. But overall, the real preference depends on the person.



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