How to Decode Egg Cartons

Not all eggs are created equal, so it’s important to know how to decode egg cartons' different labels.

| April/May 2007


Not all eggs are created equal, so it’s important to know what different labels really mean.


On a recent Saturday afternoon I bought three dozen eggs from my local Wild Oats supermarket. All were large, brown, cage-free, certified organic eggs. The least expensive, at $3.19, advertised “225 mg of Omega-3 per egg.” The most expensive cost $4.29 and said “Two eggs contain 400 mg of Omega-3.” These were Grade AA, the highest level in the USDA’s voluntary cosmetic grading system for eggs (all the others were Grade A), and were positioned behind a little shelf tag encouraging me to “Buy Local” (although they didn’t appear to be local). The third dozen cost $3.49 and said nothing about omega-3 levels.

My observations on cracking open some samples? The priciest eggs had the lowest apparent quality, i.e. pale, flat yolks and loose whites. The best-looking were the $3.49 eggs, with unknown omega-3 levels. But none looked anywhere near as good as a sample bought directly from a farmer who raises pastured poultry about five miles from where I live and sells eggs for $3 a dozen.

Conventional egg production — that is to say, the vast majority of egg production in the United States — is not a pretty business. Laying hens are crammed five or six to a cage in stacked rows of cages designed for automated feeding, watering and egg-collecting. As many as 100,000 birds can be confined in a single warehouse, each bird with less than 67 square inches, about two-thirds the size of a sheet of paper, to call its own. The crowded conditions lead to cannibalism and other destructive behavior, so the birds’ beaks are cut off at an early age, a procedure that could be likened to cutting off a child’s finger tips, in terms of its impact on the animals’ dexterity and sensory experience. The industry favors windowless warehouses with prolonged artificial light to stimulate maximum egg-laying. When egg production drops off, food is withheld as a way of sending the birds into a forced molt followed by another round of egg laying before being disposed of.

The adoption of practices like these has paralleled the spread of salmonella as a bacterial contaminant in eggs — the reason you’re cautioned not to eat raw cookie dough or Caesar dressing anymore. Crowded conditions, genetic uniformity and the widespread use of antibiotics in industrial agriculture favor the development of new and potentially more devastating pathogens.

All those new kinds of eggs for sale in the supermarket should help you opt out of this system, if you’re willing to spend a little more, right? Well, that depends. Here’s a short guide to some of the most common label claims found in the supermarket egg case:

“Cage Free,” “Free Range” or “Free Roaming.” None of these terms are currently regulated by the U.S. government, although there are some third-party verification programs (see below). Nevertheless, “free range” usually means the laying hens are raised in large flocks in big open warehouses rather than in stacked cages. They can walk around, flap their wings and preen their feathers a little. “Cage-free” does not mean outdoor access. “Free-range” implies some outdoor access, although it is probably very limited, and on dirt or concrete rather than pasture.

5/9/2016 12:25:08 PM

This information is so old, even the comments are out of date? Why wasn't it updated before being reprinted? It's very valuable information, but how can we trust it when it's now 9 years old? I'd like to read an updated version with details I can trust.

6/4/2013 9:36:26 AM

I raise "free range" hens in Cleveland MO. Our coop is 20'X12' for 15 hens.  With 5 acres of land to explore, dig and scratch, they are indeed happy hens.  Happy hens lay great eggs.

3/2/2011 3:14:49 PM

I use purchased blank egg cartons and labels to put on my egg cartons: Size: Large, medium or small, Grade: AA -since the eggs go out to the stores within a day or so from being laid-, Label:"Pasture Raised" since my girls truly run free in the pasture and woods and a label:"0 gr. Trans Fat". Why? The first, second and fourth label because the Health Department requires it, the third because it give that little push towards fresh, real eggs. The other requirement from the Health folks are the Farm name address and telephone number( I use a stamp for that) and "One Dozen Fresh Eggs" -stamp too- and a stamp print for the "safe handling tips" I'm not organically certified, I can't afford organic feed, and besides, my girls eat so many bugs and weeds- who can certify them as organic? I sell to a few local grocery stores, and farm direct...and my customers are I just stick to the stuff that the USDA/Health Department wants on the cartons

bill goodrich
3/2/2011 11:47:40 AM

Free Run Chickens most certainly WILL attack other hens and pull feathers even from an out numbered lone Rooster. That said the treatment of these modern day dinosaurs (?) is despicable. By the way, Cholesterol in and of itself is not necessarily bad; after all the body manufactures it as a means of repairing injured cells. High Cholesterol levels are more often the symptoms of disease, not the disease itself.

6/20/2008 8:22:48 PM

Unfortunately, I developed a nasty egg allergy after my last pregnancy so I can longer partake of the yummy breakfast burritoes I used to adore. For a few years I raised Americauna Hens (spelling?) from chicks. They were wonderful animals to have around. We had a large backyard for them to run free in all day and fed them nothing but grains and the bgs they dug up. Their eggs were blue or green and were SO much better than anything in the store. We had happy, healthy chickens who were more pets than anything else and they rewarded us with tons of great eggs and tons of fun. Even with my allergy, I still intend to raise hens again when I move back to the country (my family can still eat them). On a a side note, it saddens me deeply what is happening to most of the chickens in the country. I once saw a horrible documentary showing how the factory farms sort the chicks for sex when they are babies and the males are instantly thrown in a dumpster to slowly suffocate to death. It's sickening how far we as a society have removed ourselves from the food chain.

12/23/2007 11:53:59 AM

That sounds good Mary Chestnut but chickens that are not caghed do not exhibit the same destructive and cannibalistic beahviors that caged chickens do. No matter how you slice it, the industry is cruel and inhumane.

6/7/2007 11:29:50 AM

Readers should be aware that the Certified Humane program does not allow debeaking. Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), the nonprofit that operates the Certified Humane Raised and Handled program, does allow beak trimming in order to prevent outbreaks of feather pulling and cannibalism, a serious welfare issue that can occur in flocks of any size. Please review HFAC Animal Care Standards, available online at (click on Standards on the left navigation bar), for more accurate information about what the Certified Humane label means.

3/30/2007 12:00:00 PM

This is another outrage! DECEITFUL, EXPLOITATIVE MANIPULATION FOR MONEY AGAIN !!!. lISTING THE OMEGA 3 IN EGGS !!!!! Why don't they list the AMOUNT OF CHOLESTEROL IN EGGS, which is almost 3 times more than beef. One half an egg a day has more cholesterol than the recommended allowance/day. Happy heart attack, the "rightful' karma for whose who has animals suffer for their oral gratification.

3/27/2007 4:52:42 PM

This news doesn't surprise me in the least! Some years ago, the egg companies were even caught taking the outdated eggs & washing them with a solution & redating the cartons!! Wonder why we all stay in the bathroom??? I will spread this news to others who are buying the eggs in the store because they are about the same price as the local people & it is easier to just get them at the store. Thanks so much. I used to have chickens & loved "my girls". I had one hen 8 yrs. I actually saw her start & complete her cycle of laying eggs. She was a jewell. KB in GA

3/27/2007 10:42:09 AM

To most consumers surprise, there are currently no federal regulations pertaining to the use of animal welfare claims on egg cartons. This allows producers to indiscriminately use phrases such as animal-friendly or images of happy hens roaming around outside even if those eggs come from birds confined in wire battery cages so small, they can barely even move. Visit to learn more and find out how you help urge the FDA to mandate truth in labeling on egg cartons.

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