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Making Sense of Egg Labels

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By David Joachim and Andrew Schloss
From Fine Cooking #134

Cage-free:
Ninety-eight percent of eggs in the U.S. come from hens confined to small cages. (A new law going into effect in California has increased the cage size so they’re big enough for the birds to stretch their wings.) Cage-free hens have never been confined to a cage and live in a building, room, or open area with unlimited access to food and water, and with freedom to roam within the area. The hens do not usually have access to the outdoors, but they can engage in most of their natural behaviors, such as walking, nesting, and flapping their wings.

Free-range or free-roaming:
Although the United States Department of Agriculture defines “free-range” in regard to chickens, there are no government-regulated standards for “free-range eggs.” Usually, it means that the hens are kept inside cage-free and given outside access for a significant portion of their lives. The terms “access” and “significant” are not defined. There are no limits on flock size, animal density, the number and size of exits, or the size of the outdoor area. However, given enough access to forage outside for food, free-range chickens may produce eggs that are higher in vitamins, minerals, and omega-3 fatty acids than those from hens confined indoors.

Pasture-raised:
There is also no USDA definition for “pasture-raised” in regard to egg production, but it typically refers to hens kept outdoors for most of the year on a large pasture of various plants. The hens are often given access to portable, opensided shelters placed in patches of pasture surrounded by portable fencing. The shelters are moved to new locations at regular intervals to protect vegetation, distribute manure, and provide a new source of seeds for the birds. These chickens engage in many natural behaviors like dust-bathing and foraging. There is no consistency in their diet, but most pastured hens eat a varied diet rich in protein and vegetables. Their eggs tend to be higher in vitamins A, D, E, K, B-12, folate, riboflavin, beta carotene, and omega-3s, and the yolks are usually denser with a dark orange color.

Certified organic:
The living conditions of certified organic hens are the same as those of free-range, but these chickens must be fed certified organic, all-vegetarian feed free of antibiotics and pesticides. Compliance is monitored. Certified organic eggs have the same quality advantages as free-range eggs.

Vegetarian-fed:
These hens are given feed that does not contain animal products. The label does not indicate anything about the hens’ living conditions or their egg quality.

Omega-3-enhanced or -fortified:
These eggs come from hens given feed that contains a large amount of omega-3 fatty acids, which give the eggs a deep orange color. The label is unregulated and does not speak to the chickens’ living conditions or the actual amount of omega-3s in the eggs.

Natural:
This label has no significance with regard to a hen’s living conditions, feed, or egg quality.

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