IT used to be, an egg was an egg.
Now they can be cage free and free range, vegetarian and omega-3 fortified, organic, “certified humane” or “American humane certified.” The incredible, edible egg is becoming unintelligible.
Some claims on egg cartons are regulated by the federal government, some by the states and some not at all. Some affect consumers’ health, some touch upon ethics and some are meaningless.
All purport to describe how the hens were raised, or what they were fed, or what extra benefits their eggs might provide.
So, what do these terms mean?
First, the basics:
egg grades — given by the United States Department of Agriculture or other agencies — depend mainly on the firmness of the whites. AA eggs hold their shape in the pan a bit better than Grade A eggs. (Grade B eggs, for processed foods, are rarely sold in stores.) Egg sizes, like large or jumbo, are based on the weight of a dozen eggs. Then things get confusing.
The easiest way to ensure truth in labeling is to look for cartons bearing the National Organic Program emblem (a circular seal with “U.S.D.A.” over what looks like a field), any of the animal-welfare-related labels described below, or the U.S.D.A. shield (which looks like an interstate highway sign and which indicates the eggs’ grade). The organic and animal welfare programs require that producers be audited by third-party certifiers. The U.S.D.A. shield, which can be found on about 35 percent of eggs in the market, means that the agriculture department is auditing the eggs’ producers at least once a year to verify that their claims are true.
Definitions for some other common terms on egg cartons are below. Keep in mind that the agriculture department’s rules apply only to eggs with the department’s shield. For eggs that are not a part of its grading program, either state rules apply or the use of the phrase is unregulated.
How Birds Are Raised
CAGE FREE The agriculture department says this means that the chickens were kept out of cages and had continuous access to food and water, but did not necessarily have access to the outdoors.
FREE RANGE The agriculture department says that in addition to meeting the cage-free standards, free-range birds must have continuous access to the outdoors, unless there’s a health risk present. There are no standards, though, for what that outdoor area must be like. (A concrete lot could do.)
PASTURE-RAISED There is no regulation of this term, which implies hens got at least part of their food from foraging on greens and bugs, which adherents say can improve flavor. Some studies have found that pasture-raised eggs have more nutrients like omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin A, vitamin E and beta carotene, and less saturated fat and cholesterol.
ANIMAL CARE LABELS Four main terms indicate the level of care hens received.
For eggs from chickens that live in the sort of utopia conveyed by the images on most egg cartons, look for “animal welfare approved.” Available in limited markets, it is a new label by the Animal Welfare Institute that is given only to independent family farmers. Flocks can have no more than 500 birds, and chickens over 4 weeks old must be able to spend all their time outside on pesticide-free pasture with a variety of vegetation. They must have access to dust baths and cannot have their beaks trimmed (a practice on crowded egg farms) or be fed animal byproducts.
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