Get the Scoop on Decoding Egg Labels

Learn what organic, cage-free, and all the rest mean.

Looking at egg labels.

(Sergey Ryzhov /

Eggs are an incredibly versatile food. You can eat them scrambled, over easy, hard boiled, or poached. You can use eggs in baked goods, and there are a myriad of recipes to dress up this highly nutritious source of protein.

But choosing which eggs to buy in the supermarket isn’t simple, according to Clean Eating Magazine. Besides choosing what size eggs you want, you have to choose white or brown, natural or organic, and even how the chickens were raised.

But what do all the terms on the labels or egg cartons mean? Which ones really matter? Here is a guide to decoding egg labels so you can choose the eggs that are the right fit for you.

USDA Labels

If you live in the US, there are some guidelines that can help you pick the best eggs for you, according to Eco Watch. But these labels and those of various third-party organizations do not take into account all the environmental, animal welfare, or fair labor issues.

USDA grades
Do you know what the letters on egg cartons mean? The grades are tied to egg quality but it is not required to have eggs graded, according to Clean Living.  Grades of AA,A, or B highlight the quality of the eggs with AA being the best. The eggs are also sized extra-large, large, and medium. Most recipes call for large eggs.

USDA certified organic
If the egg carton has a USDA organic seal, then the eggs are produced  under the strict guidelines of the department of agriculture. It means the hens were  uncaged, free-ranged and fed an organic diet that is free of chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

Since most US chickens are raised in factory farms, reported Eco Watch,  where they live in very small cages and treated inhumanely, cage-free eggs have to have room to move around and have access to fresh food and water but there is no guarantee that hens can go outside.

The USDA definition of free-range means that the hens have unlimited access to food and water and have the ability to roam within their areas with continuous access to the outdoors. The hens must be fenced and or covered with netting but the outdoor area size is not specified so it could be a small screened room or a large outdoor area.

While this term is not defined by the USDA, third-party certifiers have stringent regulations. Certified pasture-raised eggs are laid by hens that have at least 108 square feet per chicken and must be outside with adequate protection from weather. But there is no other uniform regulation.

Eggs in the supermarket.

(Colleen Michaels /

Misleading Terms Found on Egg Labeling

There are a host of other terms found on egg labels that do not have any real meanings, according to Clean Living.

Cartons that are labeled, “farm-fresh” do not mean that the chickens were raised outdoors on a family farm since all eggs come from a farm; commercial or not.

Another misleading label is “natural” which doesn’t mean that the eggs are organic, it simply means that nothing was added to the eggs. All the eggs in your supermarket are natural.

Seeing “Vegetarian-Fed” doesn’t carry any weight since chickens are omnivores and eat both plant and animal foods. The same goes for any labels that use the words “humane” or “humanely” raised. If you are concerned about ethical treatment, look for certifications from animal welfare groups, suggests Echo Watch.

Animal Welfare Certifications

While certifications from animal welfare groups do not tell you anything about the quality of the eggs, it does give you important information on how the eggs were produced. According to Clean Living, if you are concerned about flock density and animal roaming space then look for one of these certifications.

Certified Animal Welfare Approved by AGW: This certification has the highest standards of care and is offered by A Greener World.

American Humane Certified: These flocks are certified cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised by the American Humane Association.

Food Alliance Certified: This certification assures that the hens ate no meat or animal by-products in their feed and that they were raised cage-free.

Certified Humane: These eggs passed three levels of certification and auditing for cage-free free-range, and pasture-raised by Humane Farm Animal Care.

Read your labels carefully to ensure that you are purchasing eggs that meet your expectations of quality and humane treatment of animals.