How to Decode Egg Cartons

Stop buying low quality eggs and use this clever guide on how to interpret the symbols on the carton and ensure you’ll never purchase a cruddy egg again.

  • Egg Cartons
    Not all eggs are created equal, so it’s important to know what different labels really mean.
    Photo courtesy MATTHEW T. STALLBAUMER

  • Egg Cartons

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



Fall 2021!

Put your DIY skills to the test throughout November. We’re mixing full meal recipes in jars, crafting with flowers, backyard composting, cultivating mushrooms, and more!


Subscribe Today - Pay Now & Save 64% Off the Cover Price

50 Years of Money-Saving Tips!

Mother Earth NewsAt MOTHER EARTH NEWS for 50 years and counting, we are dedicated to conserving our planet's natural resources while helping you conserve your financial resources. You'll find tips for slashing heating bills, growing fresh, natural produce at home, and more. That's why we want you to save money and trees by subscribing through our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. By paying with a credit card, you save an additional $5 and get 6 issues of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for only $12.95 (USA only).

You may also use the Bill Me option and pay $17.95 for 6 issues.

Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
International Subscribers - Click Here
Canadian subscriptions: 1 year (includes postage & GST).

Facebook Pinterest Instagram YouTube Twitter flipboard

Free Product Information Classifieds Newsletters