Freshly Grown’s Egg Buying Guide

For those of us who purchase eggs, the choices seem endless and confusing with so many labels. Free-range, cage-free, organic, no antibiotics, omega-3s, vegetarian-fed, humane and the list goes on. Why all the labels? If we get right down to it, why do we have a need for labeling eggs at all? Does it even matter what kind of eggs I buy? Below is Freshly Grown’s Egg Buying Guide written to help you decide what kind of eggs are right for you and your family.

Debunking Some of the Most Common Egg Labels 

Free Range

Free range

According to the USDA Food & Inspection Service Guidelines:

FREE RANGE or FREE ROAMING:

Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.

Free range is a bit of a facade and a slick marketing tactic if you don’t know the farm and the producer’s farming practices. Free range is USDA regulated, but there is no regulation on the amount of time chickens are allowed outside or the quality of their living conditions, so if they get a mere five minutes a day outside, producers can stamp a free range label on an egg product that is USDA approved. ‘Usually these types of operations allow chickens outside of cages in barns or warehouses, but they aren’t required to provide the animals any specific amount of time outside—or even exposure to sunlight indoors. Chickens can still be debeaked or forced into molting, a practice used to keep hens laying eggs for a longer period of time, usually accomplished by starving the chickens,’ according to the Humane Society.

Cage-Free 

cage free

According to Tufts University Office of Sustainability, “Cage Free” indicates that eggs come from chickens that were not confined in cages, but the label is not highly regulated by the Food Safety Inspection Service of the USDA. “Cage Free” does not necessarily mean the birds were raised with adequate space or that they had access to the outdoors.’ Cage-free birds can engage in nesting and spreading their wings, but the practice of beak cutting is allowed and cage-free does not ensure a diet free of antibiotics.

Natural

all natural

Anything labeled ‘Natural’  or ‘All-Natural’ cannot be trusted without another ethical label backing it up. There is absolutely no definitive regulation for this term other than the product is minimally processed. It is a marketing joke.

Omega-3

omega 3

Eggs labeled with omega-3s simply mean hens were fed an increased amount of omega-3s from either flaxseed, fish oil or algae. The catch: Factory-farmed eggs already have 50 milligrams in them naturally, which is the same amount as the omega-3 enriched eggs being sold in the store. People pay an upwards of two times as much for the exact same egg. Another irony is pastured eggs, which come from chickens allowed to roam on open pasture, have twice as much omega-3s as factory-farmed eggs anyway.

Vegetarian-Fed

veg fed

Chickens are NOT vegetarians, they are omnivores by nature, so do not be fooled when you see the label ‘vegetarian fed.’ Unless you know the farm or it’s labeled USDA Organic, the vegetarian feed they are given  is GMO grains. Chickens should be allowed 100% access to the outdoors and the ability to perform all of their natural chicken behaviors like scratching, hunting for grubs and roaming free all day, not eating GMO grain. 

Best Egg Buying Options

Jerry's Chickens

{Grow International Pastured Hens}

Local, Pastured Eggs from Pasture-Raised Hens (#1 Best Egg Buying Option Overall)

The best option is to purchase some hens, pitch a coop in your backyard and become your own egg producer. You’ll know exactly what is going down with your eggs and won’t have to question farming practices. If this is something you want to try, check out this post. If this is a no-go for you, find a neighbor you trust who will sell you their eggs or a local farmer near you with ethical farming practices. 

Not only is it more humane for the animal when we choose pastured eggs, but we as consumers are getting a far superior product. Studies show the more a chicken has access to the outdoors, the better the egg and more nutrients you are going to be putting into your body.

In 1974, the British Journal of Nutrition found that pastured eggs had:

50 percent more folic acid and 70 percent more vitamin B12 than eggs from factory farm hens.

2007 Mother Earth News egg testing project. The testing found that, compared to official U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) nutrient data for commercial eggs, eggs from hens raised on pasture contain:

  • 1/3 less cholesterol
  • 1/4 less saturated fat

  • 2/3 more vitamin A  

  • 2 times more omega- 3 fatty acids  
  • 3 times more vitamin E
  
  • 7 times more beta carotene

The Egg Test

The darker the yolk, the more nutrient-dense it is.

  EggYolks

Left: Pasture-raised egg

Right: Conventional, factory-farm egg

Better Egg Buying Options

100% Pasture-Raised (#1 Best Store-Bought Label)

As mentioned above, the best eggs come from chickens given 100% access to the outdoors. These chickens get to perform all of their natural chicken behaviors like scratching, pecking, hunting for grubs and roaming free all day, which produces a better, nutrient-dense egg. Pasture-raised hens produce far better eggs than even the USDA-Certified Organic eggs because they are given more access to the outdoors. They are usually raised on small farms and are farm animals in the purest sense. This label isn’t regulated so it is up to you to check into the farm/farmer to ensure they truly pasture-raise their animals and are not given supplemental GMO feed.

Vital Farms is a great brand. One of their egg brands looks like this. For Oregonians, you can find this brand at Fred Meyers in the natural section.

Vital Farms  

Animal Welfare Approved (#2 Best Store-Bought Label)

This is the highest standard for animal care according to the Humane Society and the best ethical label in my opinion. The products being purchased by consumers with this label should be bought with confidence. These chickens are cage-free and are allowed continuous outdoor access; it is required. They perform natural behaviors like nesting, perching, and dust bathing, and birds must be allowed to molt naturally. Molting is the ritual of shedding and renewing their feathers and occurs once every year. Beak cutting is also prohibited. Antibiotic use is allowed to treat disease, but any animal that receives a dose has to be removed from egg-laying operations for an “antibiotic withdrawal” period and is under the supervision of a Veterinarian. The downside is organic food isn’t required, so if you can find eggs with the organic label as well, it’s a win. The program does prevent the use of animal byproducts and encourages GMO-free food whenever possible. Farmers are subject to annual audits to ensure all standards are being met. 

USDA-Certified Organic (#3 Best Store-Bought Label. Sometimes you will see USDA Organic + Animal Welfare Approved, which is great)

 

A USDA-certified organic label means the eggs came from hens not enclosed in battery cages, hens must be given access to the outdoors, although the duration of time is not strictly defined as is the case with the free range label.Organic eggs come from hens that were fed certified-organic feed, free of things like arsenic and antibiotics, pesticides, animal byproducts, and genetically modified organisms (GMOs),’ Rodale News states. Farmers are subject to annual audits of their operations and must pay a fee to be certified. The bad: forced molting and debeaking are allowed in certified-organic production.

 

Food Alliance Certified (#4 Uncaged and have access to the outdoors, beak cutting is allowed)

 

Hens are uncaged and have access to outdoors. They are allowed to engage in natural behavior and there are specific requirements as to stocking density and space. Their feed is 100% vegetarian, the problem with this is chickens aren’t vegetarians. This is why truly pastured hens from a farmer you know is the best option. Whenever you see ‘vegetarian fed’ on an egg label, be skeptical as already mentioned because they may  be getting GMO feed. GMOs may or may not be used with this label depending on the farm. They need to scratch and eat grubs and worms and such. Beak cutting is allowed.

 

Good Egg Buying Option

Certified Humane (#5 Hens are kept indoors in barns or warehouses unless labeled free range and then given minimal access to the outdoors. I prefer pastured/true free range hens so I’m not sure I would include this as a good label, although the industry does)

Hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and are typically kept indoors (the animal care standards do not require hens to have free-range access). The hens are allowed to engage in natural activities (nesting, perching, dust-bathing) and are given space to do so (stocking density is regulated). No antibiotics or hormones are administered, forced molting is not allowed, but beak cutting is allowed.

American Humane Certified (#6 Does not require outdoor access. Although stamped humane, I don’t consider this a great label, but better than the worst buying options for sure.)

This certification does not require outdoor access.

While not as comprehensive as the previous labels, American Humane-Certified does guarantee that animals have access to adequate food and water, are able to perform natural behaviors, and are not overcrowded and have freedom of movement. While 100 percent compliance is required to be certified, minor violations found during the initial inspection do not necessarily disqualify the producer. Approved producers are given the opportunity to correct any violations and may be suspended for non-compliance. – Red Rover

 

The Worst Egg Buying Options

Commercial eggs brands are the worst buying option in terms of quality of the egg itself and ethical treatment of the animal. These eggs come from factory farms. Hens are stuffed into battery cages and confined to live in unsanitary conditions their entire lives. They are crammed together, their beaks have been cut so they do not peck each other to death, they defecate on the chickens and eggs below them and they are treated poorly by workers. 

World News Videos | ABC World News

Because factory farmed chickens cannot roam and forage like nature intended, the eggs coming out of these ‘farms’ are inferior in nutrients. They are fed GMOs and routinely given antibiotics in their feed. Salmonella runs rampant in factory farming and has lead to outbreaks, hospitalization and even deaths. 

In the U.S. 95% of eggs come from factory farms, which means the majority of Americans are buying and eating these eggs. If your egg label doesn’t have one of the Good, Better or Best buying options, it’s safe to bet you’re buying and eating factory farmed, caged eggs. These are some of the biggest and worst factory farm producers:

Top egg

Rose Acre Farms, producer of Eggland’s Best, along with Rembrandt Enterprises and Sparboe Farms have gotten hammered in the Press in recent years for their unsanitary and unethical farming practices. You can read about it here and here.

eggland's

The Take Away

Factory farms are driven by the market, the more people buy factory eggs (and chickens), the more these farms are supplied. This means that every dollar you spend on nutrient-dense, organic, humane, truly free- range, pastured eggs, whether at the grocery store or supporting your local farmer, it is one more dollar toward changing our current farming system. Doing this also creates change for those who cannot afford quality food because those who can afford it, put their dollar where it counts and demanded change. It is simple economics: the more we demand quality food with our dollars, the more will be supplied. Vote with your dollars, pitch a coop, support your local farmer and choose better egg labels at the store. We can all do something, even if small.

What kind of eggs do you look for? Does looking at these labels help in terms of what you might look for in the future? Leave your answer in the comments.

Want to learn more about conventional, factory farming practices? FG’s 2 Reasons to Reconsider the Eggs You Buy takes a look at our food industry and typical chicken factory-farming practices. It’s not pretty. 

Need some better egg breakfast ideas? Check out 10 Egg Breakfast Ideas to Fuel Your Body

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FRESHLY GROWN'S EGG BUYING GUIDE-2

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____________________

United Egg Producers, Animal Husbandry Guidelines 2010 Edition

Huffington Post; How to Read Egg Labels2012

Rodale; The Truth About Your Eggs

The Humane Society of the United States; Cage Free vs. Free Range

Tufts UniversityDecoding Food Labels

United States Department of Food and Agriculture, Food Safety & Inspection Service; Meat and Poultry Labeling Terms2011

Pic sources: 

egginovations.com

sitepoint.com

pic: 2wired2tired.com

knowabouthealth.com



12 Comments

  • Nicci Walker says:

    This was great- I had no idea that there were so many variations in what those labels meant. I assumed if it was free-range and organic that I was doing well- thank you SO Much for the education!!!

    • Freshly Grown says:

      Absolutely! Me, either. Kind of crazy all the little variances. I feel like you have pick the lesser of evils when going to the store and when available, go with Animal Welfare Certified, which I wasn’t even aware of until now. I’m not sure I’ve even seen this label, or paid attention. And if folks do buy organic, at least we should know what exactly that means so we can make informed choices. You’re so welcome, love digging into this stuff!

  • kyle says:

    Love all the information you gathered. You are a very smart woman 🙂

    • Freshly Grown says:

      Thanks, Husband. ♥ U.

  • Karen Melvin says:

    Hey Rama, I’m in 100%. I must say I was one of those people who had her head in the sand! Not any more!! Starting today, I purchased my first dozen eggs from a local farm not too far from my home. The eggs were gathered two days ago and the chicken are kept in a very safe, humane environment. I feel so good about this decision. I can hardly wait to try them. Thank you for your hard work and for caring so much about others. It’s contagious!!

    • Freshly Grown says:

      Karen, I don’t even know what to say. I’m at a loss for words. Thank you for taking the time out of your day to read and opening your heart and mind to a better way, for us and for the animal. I am not a vegetarian, but I think it absolutely matters how we steward our animals and our land and of course our food. We we cheapen all forms of life to a commodity, problems are sure to arise as we can clearly see. I’m so excited for your new venture into partnering with people in your community and getting fresh eggs! Let me know how those eggs taste!

  • Carla Romero says:

    Rama, Thanks for all the investigation. I get eggs from my brothers chicken as often as I can but sometimes I buy them from the store. Did you find any brand that you think is the better of all the evils?

    • Freshly Grown says:

      That is a good question. I do not have a brand that is better, other than checking to see if it is from a local farm vs. a farm far away. I always look at where the eggs came from. Washington is about as far as I like to go since it’s right there 🙂

  • amanda says:

    Certified organic is a farce lable too. Again you have to be familiarb with the growers to be sure.

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