Deconstructing egg-carton labels

Or, how to shop for the modern egg

By
April 23, 2007

Culinate editor’s note: Shopping for eggs, once so simple, is now bewildering. This week Kelly Myers tackles egg-carton labels and what they really mean, plus offers a frittata recipe. Food editor Carrie Floyd confesses her confusion over egg buying. And next week Jes Burns will report on how to get the best eggs you’ll ever taste, by keeping your own chickens.

Eggs are just about perfect. We eat them raw and cooked, whole and separated, whipped and baked and fried. We eat them for their protein, folic acid, polyunsaturated fat, and vitamins. We eat them, quite simply, because we love them.

Eggs are little packages of goodness. And they are cheap. Or used to be, before eggs stopped being “eggs” and became “cage free,” “organic,” “antibiotic free,” “fed a vegetarian diet,” and the like. The egg is no longer an egg, but a choice. And eating eggs is no longer just about taste or health, but about food purity and animal rights as well.

I work as a chef. I cook with eggs every day. But in the grocery store I, too, pause at the egg case in frustration. What do all the labels really mean? Which eggs should I buy, and for which reasons?

Eggs come from chickens, not cartons.

Conventional egg production, otherwise known as the battery system, crams as many as six chickens into a cage at a time, leaving each bird with less personal space than a sheet of ordinary notebook paper. Critics say the battery system causes the spread of disease, requires the painful debeaking of birds, and restricts natural bird behaviors, such as dusting or nesting.

I didn’t want to buy eggs from these birds, but wasn’t sure how to figure out which eggs came from which birds. So, after talking to farmers, poultry scientists, and a physician, I put together the following guide to egg-carton terminology.

Brown eggs

Brown eggs come from chickens with brown feathers, and white eggs come from chickens with white feathers. The color of the shell indicates nothing about the egg’s nutritional profile, taste, or the manner in which the laying hen was raised.

Natural

“Natural” sounds swell, but the label is unregulated and lacks meaning.

Vegetarian / Vegetarian diet

This label indicates that no animal by-products, such as beef tallow or chicken feathers, are in the chickens’ feed. And “vegetarian” sure sounds healthy. But chickens are natural omnivores who like to spend time outside digging for protein in the form of insects and worms, so the “vegetarian” label is really just another way of saying that the hens can’t go outside.

Still, an all-vegetarian diet is nutritionally possible for chickens with the addition of synthetic vitamin B-12.

Omega-3 enriched

Omega-3 is a polyunsaturated fatty acid considered crucial by some for developing brains and preventing heart disease and depression. Farmers boost the omega-3 content of their hens’ eggs by adding ground flaxseed, algae, or even fish oil to the birds’ feed.

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An omega-3 egg contains about 200 to 300 milligrams of omega-3s. But a three-ounce portion of salmon will give you about 1,000 milligrams, nearly three times that of the enriched egg.

Hormone free

The FDA banned the use of hormones — most notably diethylstilbestrol, or DES — in poultry in 1959, after they not only caused tragic health problems in consumers but also failed to stimulate growth in chickens. “Hormone free” is a misleading bit of marketing that suggests other egg producers are illegally dosing their birds.

Antibiotic free

Regular dosing of livestock, including poultry, can encourage the growth of antibiotic-resistant bacteria that can, in turn, sicken humans. (NPR covered this story back in 2001.) Unfortunately, the term “antibiotic free” is unregulated and impossible to verify. And it’s difficult to pinpoint the extent of the egg industry’s reliance on antibiotics to preserve poultry health.

Robert Spiller, an animal-science professor at California State Polytechnic University in San Luis Obispo, California, owned commercial egg flocks for more than 20 years. He says that the expense of antibiotics (the entire flock, not just a lone sick bird, must be medicated) means that they’re rarely used on laying hens. “It would have to be an extreme health situation,” he says.

Battery hens are kept in cages.

Instead of antibiotics, Spiller says, egg producers employ biosecurity measures (limiting rodents as well as human visitors), vaccinations, and genetic selection for disease resistance to keep birds healthy. Besides, he adds, antibiotics used on humans (such as tetracyclines) are banned for use on laying hens.

Yet 64 egg producers in the United States own flocks of at least a million birds. With chickens crowded in battery cages, it’s hard to imagine how producers control for disease without some antibiotic use.

“The concern about antibiotic residue is that we don’t know what it does when it gets in our system,” says Monica Myklebust, an assistant professor at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

“Theoretically, taking in these antibiotics can alter our system,” she says. “I like to have people think about why are they using these antibiotics in the first place. The more stressful (the chickens’) conditions are, the more likely they’ll get sick.”

Certified humane / Certified Humane: Raised and Handled

Let’s quote from Marion Nestle’s book What to Eat here: “This seal is sponsored by national and state humane societies and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. It attests to how the hens are treated, but is less concerned with what they are fed.” Eggs with this label come from birds that, presumably, have better living conditions than battery birds.

United Egg Producers Certified

This label is fluffier than a newly hatched chick; it means only that the eggs, like most of the eggs sold in the U.S., came from battery birds. “The purpose of this program is to make you think commercial egg production is kind to hens,” writes Nestle. “You should not be surprised that 80 percent of industrial egg producers are certified this way. This certification merely attests that a company gives food and water to its caged hens.”

Cage free

Cage-free eggs should come from hens that are not confined in cages. Generally, this means that the birds live on the floor of a large barn, typically by the thousands. Keep in mind, however, that the term “cage free” is not legally regulated.

Fast-food chains Burger King and the Pacific Northwest’s Burgerville announced plans this year to switch to cage-free eggs. (Burger King committed to cage-free eggs for only two percent of its total eggs to start with, but Burgerville declared it would use cage-free eggs exclusively.) Marketplace muscle may force third-party inspection for a system that intends to give hens room to roost, dust themselves, and nest.

Fertile

Fertile eggs, by definition, have been in contact not just with hens but with roosters. Which means that the hens most likely were not kept in cages.

Free range / free roaming

The phrase “free range” evokes fresh air and open skies. But according to Mitch Head, of the industry group United Egg Producers, the term, like “cage free,” is not linked to any outside regulator that inspects laying hens. Head says that “free range” means chickens have access to the outdoors; it does not necessarily mean the birds actually go outdoors.

Ideally, “free range” would mean that hens spread out on pasture and scratch for grubs and other goodies. But on an industrial scale, the label is likely to mask the fact that thousands of chickens housed in a large shed may or may not have gone outdoors through a lone small door.

The difference is important. How chickens are confined dictates their diet. Hens allowed to forage have a greater chance of eating a variety of foods — not just chicken feed, but also worms, bugs, grass, herbs, fruit, and nuts. Why should you care? Because when you eat an egg, you eat what the hen ate that laid it. And hens that are pastured (see Pastured, below) eat better diets than hens that aren’t.

Reality check: How freely can they range? All chickens are confined in one way or another. If not, they would be vulnerable to predators and it would be difficult to find their eggs.

Organic / Certified Organic

All organic eggs are certified by the USDA. Organic eggs come from hens whose feed is free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and commercial fertilizers. Organic chicken feed contains no animal byproducts. The hens have never been given antibiotics. They are cage-free and have access to the outdoors.

Consumers will pay more for organic eggs. “Organic chicken feed is about twice as expensive as conventional chicken grain,” explains Jesse LaFlamme of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs in Monroe, New Hampshire.

“One of the greatest cost factors is how the hens are kept,” he says. “In conventional egg production, farmers can have up to 250,000 chickens in a single barn. The largest organic barns hold about 20,000 hens, but they are free to roam, and they lay their eggs in nests. Organic hens are able to act like chickens.”

Pastured / Pasture raised

Here’s a label you won’t see often. That’s because “pasture raised” is less often a printed label than a verbal explanation from farmers or backyard hobbyists about how they care for their birds.

(Pastured, of course, is not the same as pasteurized. Pasteurized eggs are available, and appeal to people afraid of salmonella, but cost as much as 50 percent more than unpasteurized eggs and are difficult to whip into a froth.)

Pastured hens range freely, sampling grubs, worms, bugs, grass, and fallen fruit and nuts. Only the smallest of farms — less than 1,000 birds — can put their hens out on enough greenery to support the birds.

Pasturing requires diligent management, as the chickens must be moved to a fresh patch as soon as they eat the grass down. Farmers also provide grain, corn or soy for calories and fats, and calcium-rich oyster shells for eggshell formation.

Free-range chickens are still confined, but have space to roost and dust themselves.

As Nina Planck points out in her book Real Food, “Eggs from pastured birds are superior to those from hens raised indoors, whose yolks are literally pale imitations of those from hens on grass. Pastured yolks are a rich yellow from the beta-carotene in plants. They also contain more monounsaturated fat, vitamins A and E, folic acid, lutein, and beta-carotene than indoor eggs. Pastured eggs are dramatically richer in omega-3 fats, which prevent obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression.”

Norma Cravens of Springwater Farm in Yankton, Oregon, turns out her flock every morning. “Some will go to the edge of the woods; some go straight to the swamp,” she observes. “They really do choose their own foods.” Cravens has even seen her chickens nibble on comfrey leaves and maitake mushrooms.

The best sources of pasture-raised eggs are farmers’ markets and friends who raise their own chickens. Small-scale chicken farmers often follow organic standards but, because of the hassle and expense, have not sought official organic certification.

A Venezuelan friend once complained to me that the eggs in this country taste like nothing. I thought he was just picky until years later, when I bought a dozen eggs from someone at my credit union. They were luscious and rich, with thick orange yolks. Immediately, I understood what an egg was supposed to taste like. Since then, I buy pastured eggs as often as I can get them.

“I think the way an animal is treated is reflected in the foods they produce,” says Myklebust, the Maryland doctor. “Whether they sit in a nest, dust themselves, interact with other chickens. Or are they debeaked, is their food restricted to increase egg production? That’s a stressed animal. They’re going to produce food that has a different nutrient content. But I don’t have proof.”

Until science tests Myklebust’s hunch about the connection between the life of the chicken and the quality of the egg it lays, there are really only three ways for a cook to know an egg. First, look for organic eggs — it’s the only label certified by an independent third party. Second, buy eggs direct, from people instead of stores, so you can ask the farmer how she raises her chickens.

Finally, trust your powers of observation. Crack open an egg. Is the yolk a vivid orange and the white clear and firm? Urban dwellers, does this egg taste better than most eggs you have ever eaten? If so, chances are good that the chicken ate well. And you will, too.

Kelly Myers is a chef at Nostrana in Portland, Oregon.

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1. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Apr 24, 2007 at 7:05 AM PDT

This is a great rundown. I noticed what I think may be good news at my local supermarket in the past few weeks: the price of regular store-brand eggs is skyrocketing. It went from $1.69/dozen to over $3/dozen, meaning the price difference between regular and organic eggs is now pretty slim. I’d wanted to buy the organic eggs, but they tended to sit longer on the shelf, to the point that they were hard to separate (not to mention lousy for poaching).

Now, I assume many of my neighbors who, like me, are both knee-jerk do-gooders and cheapskates, will choose the organics.

2. by eamonm on Apr 24, 2007 at 9:22 AM PDT

A really good article. The labels can be very confusing and as pointed out in the article, many are unregulated. When buying eggs in the grocery, organic is the best route. It’s a well regulated and well defined label. If buying direct, talk to the farmer and when you go home crack an egg open and look at it.

3. by OpusOne on Apr 24, 2007 at 9:31 AM PDT

eamonm,
Is there a standard used by a farmer selling through a farmer’s market that is equal to the ‘organic’ as defined by the FDA? Or do you even need to worry about this given the nature of farmers using farmer’s markets?

Did that make sense?

4. by eamonm on Apr 24, 2007 at 12:07 PM PDT

Good question. The only certification you’ll see at markets will be organic certification. Many markets ask about farming practices in the application process. Farmers market shoppers are an inquisitive lot. They ask the farmers a lot of questions about their farming practices. So while there is no third party certification beyond organic, the nature of the market does create an informal stamp of approval.

5. by Kim on Apr 26, 2007 at 4:00 PM PDT

I just spotted this excellent piece about egg-laying chickens in Britain. It says that battery egg production will be illegal in all of Europe in 2012. Anyone want to wager a bet when this will happen in the US?

6. by eamonm on Apr 26, 2007 at 7:44 PM PDT

I think it will take a bit longer in the US. But watch the big privately owned groceries like Wegman’s in Western NY. Wegman’s owns an egg farm which supplies its groceries. The company has started a cage free program within its own business. If Wegman’s goes 100% cage free then the rest of the industry will follow about 5 years later. Wegman’s and the other large privately owned groceries are way ahead of the publicly traded groceries.

7. by John Henderson on May 3, 2007 at 8:30 AM PDT

I enjoyed the article and thought it shared some important information. I did notice, however, a common mistake about egg color: “Brown eggs come from chickens with brown feathers, and white eggs come from chickens with white feathers.”

That is not correct. Many brown feathered hens lay white eggs. Many white feathered hens lay brown eggs. Leghorns, whether they are white or brown feathered, lay white eggs. Rhode Island Reds and Rhode Island Whites both lay brown eggs. And, what’s even more obvious is that hens come in many different colors of feathers, not just white and brown.

Kelly is hardly alone in perpetuating this error. The American Egg Board trivia page reports the same misinformation. The reason the error continues, as far as I can guess, is that the statement is mostly true if and only when commercial egg operations are considered. The white Leghorn, unlike brown feathered varieties of that breed, has been bred to be an egg machine, so indeed nearly 100% of white eggs sold by commercial egg factories are laid by white feathered birds, and no other breed of white egg laying hens are used in battery cage/industrial farming system. Brown eggs come from commercial strains of several different breeds or sex linked crossbreds, almost all of which do have some shade of brown feathers.

While there is no connection between egg color and feather color, there is some connection between egg color and ear lobe color. With few exceptions, if a hen has white ear lobes, she will lay white eggs; if a hen has red earlobes, she will lay brown eggs. The Leghorn breed, including all varieties and feather colors, have white earlobes and lay white eggs.

Among the red ear-lobed hens that lay white eggs are some French breeds ( Crevecoeurs, Houdans), some of the bantams (booted, Japanese), and some American varieties that were developed in the 20th century that are among the rarest breeds in the world (Lamona, Holland).

Silkies are another exception to the rule, as they have turquoise earlobes and lay light tinted eggs. Araucanas and Ameraucanas don’t fit either, since they lay green eggs, but don’t have green ear lobes.

8. by OpusOne on May 3, 2007 at 9:34 AM PDT

Thanks John, the beauty of the internet that we all love here at Culinate is that the information does not just get printed and filed away. It can grow, learn and continue to educate. Now only if we could get the American Egg Board to update their own trivia section.

9. by Joanna on Oct 22, 2007 at 12:48 PM PDT

This was a very helpful article, as I am usually left scratching my head in confusion while attempting to purchase a simple carton of huevos. Alas, there is no such thing as a simple carton of huevos, but at least now I am much more egg-savvy than I was before reading your informative piece.

So, when not blessed with pastured eggs direct from a person with egg-laying chickens, what do you buy? Is there any particular brand/farm of local organic eggs that you prefer?

I occasionally get a handful of the excellent, bright orange-yolked beauties from a chicken-having friend, but not enough to support my relatively high level of egg use.

Thanks for the good information.

10. by Kelly Myers on Oct 23, 2007 at 1:51 PM PDT

A very good question. The short answer is, I’m going to stick to the brand I know to be local and organic.

Last winter, when I couldn’t buy eggs at a farmers market, I noticed that a brand of supermaket organic eggs I buy varied from week to week in terms of how fresh they seemed and how orange their yolks were.

Overall, though, I have not noticed a great deal of difference between the three or four store brands we have tried. The only thing they seem to have in common is that they are not terribly fresh. I can tell because the yolks are not as firm, not as upright when you crack the egg into the frying pan.

My household recently went back to store eggs after a long season of eggs from the farmers market. When my husband cracked one the other morning and looked at the flabby, pale yellow yolk, he was very disappointed and said with uncharacteristic drama, “What are we going to do now?”

11. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Sep 29, 2008 at 9:03 PM PDT

Thank you for this article, as there is much confusion and misinformation about eggs. Another great program that requires humane standards and outdoor access on vegetation is the Animal Welfare Approved program. Also, your point about pasture-raised flocks can’t be any larger than 1,000 is not correct. We have 3,500 hens that we rotate on 20 acres of organic pasture using portable chickens coops (5 of them). We move them every other day. It can be done at this level with diligent management.
Pasture-raised & organic is the gold standard. But one option you did not mention is raising your own backyard flock of 4 or 5 birds. Even big cities like San Francisco allow laying hens in your backyard. Hens are quite easy to keep and a great way to secure your own quality food source.

12. by magpie26 on Sep 8, 2009 at 8:22 PM PDT

Thank you for clearing this up for us! It is so confusing to see all of those labels that seem so nice and squeaky clean.

13. by anonymous on Oct 23, 2014 at 8:35 PM PDT

Thanks for the helpful article. I assume that soy may be one of the grains that chickens eat. I look for foods that do not contain soy and one time I found a carton of eggs that stated that the chickens were not fed soy. I recycle egg cartons by bringing the cartons to a farmer who keeps chickens. I still have the carton and will post again with the name of the farm that sells the eggs.

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