It's hard to know where to start when you're looking at an egg carton. Cage-free, organic, free range, certified humane... which of these buzzwords actually mean something, and which ones don't? Use this guide to find the right eggs for you and get crackin'.
Contrary to what you might think, cage-free doesn’t mean that the henhouse is free of cages—just that the hens aren’t confined to them. Cartons with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) shield that are labeled cage-free must be produced by hens housed in a way that not only allows for unlimited access to food and water but also provides them the freedom to roam.
Free range (or sometimes free roaming) means cage-free—plus a backyard. In order to be recognized by the USDA as free range, hens must have continuous access to the outdoors.
This term comes from Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a nonprofit that advocates for fair treatment of farm animals. To meet one of the organization’s standards for certified humane, each hen must have a minimum of two square feet of outdoor clucking room.
These hens spend most of their time in—you guessed it—pastures. Cartons with the certified humane symbol that are also labeled as pasture raised must allow at least 2 1/2 acres per 1,000 birds, plus access to a henhouse, according to HFAC.
This USDA-regulated label is mostly about what the hens eat. The feed must be grown without pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, or herbicides. But these chicks must also be cage-free.
This term isn’t regulated by anyone, so real talk: It could be a marketing ploy. If you think about it, all eggs laid by hens are technically “natural,” right?
If your carton doesn’t show any of the above terms, it’s likely they’re nonorganic commodity eggs, which means the hens live in cages their entire lives. These eggs are almost always the cheapest, because they’re produced using the least humane methods. Your best bet is to do your own research and buy eggs from the source you feel most comfortable with.