Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Choosing a carton of eggs isn’t as simple as grabbing the lowest-priced option on a grocery store’s shelves. You’ve got a few decisions to make: large or extra-large, organic or natural, grade AA or A or B. And don’t forget about other labels that declare different cartons of eggs to be white, brown, non-GMO, enriched, or even vegetarian-fed.
But which of these labels really matter? Here’s what you need to know about choosing eggs, understanding egg carton labels, and picking the best option for your needs.
Why Do Egg Cartons Have So Many Different Labels?
The confusion over egg carton labels lies with the U.S. government – specifically, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). There are currently no set requirements or definitions for egg carton labels, which means egg producers can pretty much put any phrasing they want on each carton.
And, since every commercial egg producer operates differently, the egg-laying hens are treated differently when it comes to their freedom, their space to roam, and their diets. As a result, you’ll find a wide range of different labels touting various benefits of particular eggs.
What Different Labels Mean for Your Eggs
The USDA does have a clear definition for one key egg carton label: USDA Organic. If you spot a carton of eggs that bears a USDA Organic seal, it’s one that’s been produced within the guidelines of the National Organic Program. This means that those eggs came from uncaged, free-roaming hens who were fed an organic diet free of conventional pesticides or fertilizers.
However, beyond that sole label, it’s entirely up to the egg producers to decide what’s highlighted on a given carton. And you can choose whichever labels suit your personal preferences. Here’s a sample of some of the most common you’ll come across:
- Grade: Eggs are given a grade of AA, A, or B to highlight their quality. AA eggs have the thickest whites, while Grade B offers the thinnest.
- Size: Eggs are divided into Extra Large, Large, and Medium sizes; these sizes are based on weight.
- Cage-Free: Produced by chickens who live in large living spaces like barns, instead of cages.
- Free-Range: Produced by chickens who have some kind of access to the outdoors.
- Pasture-Raised: Produced by chickens who have a large amount of space to roam (though this isn’t regulated by the USDA.) Typically, chickens are also raised on smaller farms.
- Non-GMO: Produced by chickens on a GMO-free diet. Note that these eggs are not necessarily organic.
Keep an Eye Out for These Meaningless Labels
While the above labels are a sample of some worthwhile egg carton labels, it’s also common for commercial producers to slap meaningless labels onto their products. This practice means egg carton labels aren’t always as straightforward as they seem.
For example, you might spot some cartons bearing a “farm-fresh” label. There’s really nothing that suggests what might make a particular egg “farm-fresh” – all eggs come from farms, whether commercial or not. Additionally, it’s common for cartons to bear a “natural” label. But that doesn’t mean the eggs inside are organic or specially raised. It simply means nothing was added to the eggs.
“Vegetarian-fed” is another label that doesn’t really carry any weight. Technically, chickens are omnivores, which means they eat both plant and animal food sources. So, if your eggs were produced by vegetarian-fed chickens, it doesn’t mean much for the quality of the final product (and it definitely doesn’t speak to the treatment of the birds!)
Do Animal Welfare Certifications Matter?
Another kind of label you may come across on egg cartons is animal welfare certification. There are a number of third-party organizations – Certified Humane and American Humane Certified, for example – that offer certification or special seals that indicate a food or product meets their testing, standards, or other requirements.
These third-party animal welfare organizations and their certifications may not speak to the organic nature of eggs or their quality and grade, but they can give you insight into how the eggs were produced. To bear one of these seals, the organizations require commercial egg producers to meet limits on flock density, beak trimming, and outdoor roaming space, to name just a few key details.
Here’s a sample of some of the key animal welfare certifications or seals a carton of eggs can bear, according to the Humane Society:
- Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW: With some of the highest standards of flock care from any third-party certification process, this label is given to egg cartons by A Greener World.
- Certified Humane: This carton label means eggs have passed three levels of certification with Humane Farm Animal care, plus third-party auditing to verify cage-free, free-range, or pasture-raised compliance.
- American Humane Certified: This certification, which comes from the American Humane Association, audits egg producers to ensure flocks are truly cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised.
- Food Alliance Certified: With this certification, your carton of eggs comes from chickens that ate no meat or animal byproducts in their feed, and the birds are raised cage-free.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide if these animal welfare certifications are labels you want on your egg cartons. And there are plenty more you can consider! If you’re concerned about how your eggs are being produced, you may want to look into the specifics of third-party seals and certifications that are most critically important.
To learn more about food labels, keep reading: