For the average egg consumer, these egg carton labels are often overlooked—and we can understand why. How are we supposed to know the difference between cage-free and pasture-raised, just from looking at the packaging? Don't they all mean the same thing?
Oftentimes, these egg carton labels are so confusing and misleading that it can be discouraging when you're trying to find the most sustainable and ethical option. The good news is we're here to help with an easy-to-follow breakdown of some of the most common labels.
After you read through it, you'll never be intimidated by the egg aisle again.
Common Egg Carton Labels and What They Mean
1. Certified Humane
The term Certified Humane comes from the 501(c) 3 nonprofit certification organization, Humane Farm Animal Care DBA Certified Humane. The organization is dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production.
When you see the Certified Humane logo on your egg carton, you can be sure that the animals are, at the very least, never caged and always fed a diet of quality feed that's free of antibiotics and growth hormones.
When the egg label says "natural", it actually doesn't have much to do with the animals. Under the USDA, the term "natural" just means that the egg products are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients.
This is good for people looking for natural products, but doesn't include any information on the hens or how they're treated at the farm.
You've probably seen the term "cage-free" a couple hundred times, but does it really mean what it says? The "cage-free" label on many egg cartons just means that the hens are uncaged. According to the USDA, they must be also be produced by hens that are housed in such a way that "they have unlimited access to food and water and have freedom to roam during the laying cycle."
Unfortunately, this label alone doesn't mean that the hens are getting outdoor access or being raised ethically: There are no space requirements for the laying hens. The Certified Humane label, on the other hand, requires "1.5 square feet per hen, litter for dust bathing, perches for the birds, and ammonia levels at a maximum of 10ppm."
Another term regulated by the USDA, free-range hens have access to unlimited food and water and have the freedom to roam as cage-free hens do. The hens are also said to have "continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycles." While this sounds like a good thing, they may not get to go outdoors as often as you may think.
A "free range" label alone doesn't stipulate what that outdoor access means, or how much space the hens actually get. Because of this, the time these hens get outdoors could actually just mean a couple minutes.
However, if the eggs say "Certified Humane" along with being free-range, this means that the hens have at least six hours of outdoor access and a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per bird.
5. Animal Welfare Approved
The Animal Welfare Approved label is only available to small, independent family farms. Because of that, you might not notice it in stores often—but when you do, it's a great option to reach for.
Companies that sport the label give animals continuous access to the pasture; any cage confinements are prohibited. This means that the hens are able to live the best they can and engage in their natural behaviors, like scratching and pecking.
Pasture-raised is a common term to look out for, but it's not regulated. That means any company can put it on the egg carbon label, no matter whether the hens are actually "pasture-raised" or not.
When paired with the Certified Humane label, however, these hens are guaranteed to be given at least 108 square feet each. These hens also consume lots of bugs, worms, and whatever else they can find in the dirt alongside the usual feed that most hens already eat.
You've definitely heard this term tossed around here and there. When an egg carton sports the "organic" label, that means the hens have received organic feed and never consume anything bad for them (such as animal byproducts, synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, or sewer sludge).
However, "organic" says nothing about the actual treatment of the hens. Try looking for the "organic" label alongside a Certified Humane label, which gives you a better idea of how humanely the hens are treated.