No one has time to become an overnight expert on every single item they put in their shopping cart. Get real. We all want to be conscientious consumers, but it’s not easy when there’s so much marketing jargon to learn and empty claims *cough* “all natural” *cough* to debunk. So if you’re going to become a virtuoso of anything, make it the egg aisle. Use this quick and to-the-point guide to decode every common word, phrase, label, and certification you see the next time you saunter through rows of egg cartons, cold brew in hand.
Animal welfare labels: how do the hens live?
The claims you’ll find on egg cartons can generally be separated into four categories, with animal welfare being the one that most consumers seek out first. Animal welfare labels dictate the lifestyle of the hens. Whether they’re given freedom to roam in green, grassy pastures like ours or confined to a life of disease and squalor in warehouses (we’re looking at you, other 95% of the egg industry), animal welfare labels give you a general sense of how the hens live – that is, if you know the standards behind those labels.
Code for: laid by hens that spend their days on pasture. The term “pasture-raised” isn’t regulated by the USDA, so third-party certifications with clear, specific, transparent standards are essential. Consider Pastures follows Certified Humane’s pasture-raised standards, which require each hen to have a minimum of 108 square feet of rotational pasture to herself. Certified Humane also stipulates that pasture must be made up of grasses and thriving vegetation. When coupled with the principles of regenerative farming, pasture-raised is the pinnacle of animal welfare in the egg industry. That’s what we believe, anyway.
Code for: laid by hens with ample, daily access (weather permitting) to pasture. Free range claims fall under the purview of the USDA, but their standards aren’t nearly as robust as most third-party certifiers. Specific pasture access requirements can vary from certifier to certifier, but a minimum of 2 square feet of pasture per hen is typical. Minimum outdoor time allowance also depends on the certifier. We tip our hats to responsible free range egg producers.
Code for: laid by hens with no access to the outdoors and confined in barns or warehouses. The USDA regulates the term “cage-free,” but doesn’t offer specifications for space nor requirements for openings that allow access to natural sunlight. This lack of oversight leads to overcrowding and exposure to disease. Let’s be real: cage-free is, more often than not, synonymous with factory farmed. Hard pass.
Feed certifications: what do the hens eat?
The hens lay the eggs, and we eat the eggs. So what the hens eat should matter to us, no? Claims related to hens’ diet are important. They underscore the farming practices and approach to care that an egg company follows. And if you look closely, these claims will tell you more about the origin of those eggs you just put in your reusable grocery bag than you ever thought you could know.
Code for: produced without genetically modified organisms (GMOs), synthetic pesticides, antibiotics, and added hormones. This goes for the pasture (if the hens are free range or pasture-raised) and the feed available to the hens; neither can contain or be treated with GMOs, synthetic pesticides, or chemical additives. Added hormones are also banned in organic egg production. The USDA oversees organic certification in the United States.
Code for: produced without genetic engineering or any ingredients derived from GMOs. This means that the hens’ feed cannot come from GMO crops, and any pasture available to the hens must not contain GMO plants. The Non-GMO Project is the frontrunner in non-GMO certifications, requiring rigorous testing and traceability provisions for all Non-GMO Project Verified products.
Code for: produced without the use of pesticides. This claim is accompanied by an organic or non-GMO certification more often than not.
No added hormones
Code for: laid by hens that are never given hormones. The word “added” denotes the fact that all egg-laying hens have naturally-occurring hormones in their bodies. Whether stated on the carton or not, all commercially produced eggs in the United States must come from hens that have not been given supplemental hormones at any point in their lives.
Code for: laid by hens that are never treated with antibiotics, even as chicks. In crowded cage-free environments, the use of antibiotics is rampant; some hens are even treated with antibiotics as a precaution, because disease is almost inevitable in these situations. Thanks, but no thanks.
Code for: laid by hens that consume feed with no animal products or byproducts. It’s important to note that “vegetarian fed” doesn’t always mean that the hens consume a 100% vegetarian diet. Hens are omnivores and should have access to insects and grubs to forage for. Free range or pasture-raised eggs that make the “vegetarian fed” claim are an ideal choice; it usually means the hens’ feed doesn’t contain who-knows-what animal byproducts, plus the hens are getting a portion of their diet from fresh forage outdoors.
Code for: uhhh…how do we put this? The term “all natural” doesn’t mean squat. Sorry about it! “All natural” simply implies that nothing was added to the eggs. Short of injecting them with some sort of magic serum, there’s no way to produce an egg that isn’t natural.
Farming terms: how are the farms managed?
Another category of claims to look out for: farming terms. These phrases and certifications tell you how the farms that produce the eggs in the carton are run. Although less prominent than animal welfare and feed certifications, farming claims are becoming increasingly prevalent and important to consumers. After all, we are in the midst of a major climate crisis.
Code for: produced on farms that follow the tenets of regenerative agriculture, including but not limited to promoting biodiversity, eliminating or decreasing tillage, reducing the use of artificial fertilizers, and using regenerative grazing management for livestock. Regenerative agriculture is a holistic approach to farming that considers the farm an essential part of its surrounding ecosystem; restoring and rebuilding are its cornerstones. There are three certification programs at the forefront of the regenerative agriculture movement, although eggs are not yet covered under any of them: Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) by Regenerative Organic Alliance, Certified Regenerative by A Greener World, and Land to Market by Savory Institute. These certification programs track outcomes in soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem function for products like meat, dairy, wool, and leather goods.
Code for: potentially produced with efforts to reduce waste, carbon footprint, and other negative effects on the planet. But be wary: if it’s not backed by a third-party certification, “sustainably farmed” could just be marketing jargon. It might not mean what you think.
Social good certifications: how do the eggs impact the world?
Beyond the eggs, farms and the hens that live there, social good certifications speak to how the egg company interacts with the global community. The people behind these eggs put their money where their values are, usually through monetary donations, volunteering, or other forms of support. These labels typically focus on sustainability, community, and doing good for others on a global scale.
1% for the Planet
Code for: produced by members of 1% for the Planet. By being a member of this network, businesses like Consider Pastures and individuals commit to donating a minimum of 1% of annual sales or personal annual salary to support approved environmental nonprofits. 1% for the Planet supports and guides this giving, guaranteeing that members are providing support for nonprofits addressing six core environmental issues: climate, food, land, water, pollution, and wildlife.
Certified B Corp
Code for: produced by businesses committed to putting people and planet first. Certified B Corps believe in using business as a force for good, and earning this certification requires strict accountability to verify the positive impact the business has on its customers, community, workers, and environment.