Unscrambling Egg Labels

egg cartons


Do you know the difference between Organic, Grade A, Omega-3, Free-Range, Cage-Free, etc?

Not sure about you but, whenever I’m in a store buying eggs, I haphazardly look at these words on the egg cartons.  But, I don’t really know or understand more than that.  I always assumed that organic and cage-free were the most important characteristics to define my purchase.

However, today I was reading a release and was quite interested to learn that as a shopper, we are spending more on specialty eggs  but we don’t really know what we are buying.

A new national survey shows egg carton labels are confusing consumers. We want the benefits of pasture-raised eggs but are mistakenly buying eggs labeled “free-range” and “cage-free” instead because we don’t understand the differences in how the eggs are produced.

“The only way consumers can be confident they are getting genuine pasture-raised eggs is to look for the Certified Humane® label,” said Adele Douglass, executive director of Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC). “Vital Farms is the only national brand of pasture-raised eggs that qualifies as Certified Humane®.” Established by HFAC in 1998, the Certified Humane® label means a product meets a series of standards for more responsible farm animal practices.

We are willing to pay extra for specialty eggs, but the new study shows they’re not getting what we think they’re paying for. We want pasture-raised eggs because those eggs come from hens that are raised on open pastures. But we’re buying free-range and cage-free labeled eggs laid by hens that are often not much better off than caged birds.

May 2014 Egg Label Survey

When shopping for eggs, 50 percent of respondents said they look for the free-range label. Cage-free (48 percent) and organic (47 percent) were the second and third most popular labels. Fewer than 1 in 4 (24 percent) sought out a pasture-raised label. However, when asked to describe the terms “free-range” and “cage-free,” most respondents described pasture-raised eggs, imagining hens roaming and feeding on open pastures.

Vital Farms works with 52 family-owned farms across the United States and distributes pasture-raised eggs to grocery stores nationwide. The online survey commissioned by Vital Farms found that nearly two-thirds of consumers (62 percent) have purchased specialty eggs, and almost half of respondents (45 percent) reported buying more specialty eggs over the past three years.

Currently, there are no government standards for egg labels, and the term “organic” is the only label regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture.

Comparing Pasture-Raised to Free-Range and Cage-Free

egg chart

Pasture-Raised Hens (as defined by HFAC)

Pasture-raised hens are each given 108 square feet of outdoor space to roam around, and they have unlimited daytime access to sunlight, fresh air, and any foods that are naturally available on their pastures. Supplemental feed for the hens is antibiotic- and hormone-free.

Free-Range and Cage-Free Hens

The industry standard for free-range hens is that they have some access to the outdoors each day. This access could be limited to a hole that merely allows the hens to poke out their heads and see the sky. While it’s true that cage-free hens are not in cages, they can be packed in a barn with no access to the outdoors.

“This is a taste issue, a nutrition issue, and an animal welfare issue,” said Matt O’Hayer, Vital Farms co-founder and CEO. “Not only do pasture-raised hens have ample room to roam, but they are moved onto fresh patches of grass every few days so the pastures have a chance to recover and remain healthy and productive. This outdoor lifestyle — what we like to call ‘salad and exercise’ — makes for eggs that are richer, tastier, and nutritionally superior to any other eggs.”

Vital Farms pasture-raised eggs are sold nationwide at Whole Foods Markets and other specialty grocery stores. The eggs are also sold at H-E-B and Kroger stores in Texas, and beginning in June 2014, at Vons grocery stores in Southern California. Vons is owned and operated by Safeway.

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