Monday, November 16, 2009

Egg Marketing - What’s in the Label?

“Free Range,” “Cage Free,” “Organic”…what does it all mean? Marketing labels are perhaps the most confusing part of this whole “eating healthy” game - and they are MEANT to be confusing - well... it is at least meant to make us believe we are getting something much more healthy than the egg with NO label. Marketing is very tricky and it makes me mad! So what do the various terms you see on the packages mean?

  • Conventional (i.e., no special label) - Typically less than half a square foot of space per hen, giving not even enough room to spread their wings. These chickens do not ever see the light of day, eat a blade of grass and are fed the cheapest food. The lack of nutrition in their diet has prompted the egg producers to add ingredients to their feed that will color the egg yolk to a darker yellow/orange. If they did not do this, the yolks would be very very light yellow, closer to clear.

  • Cage Free - Just as it says..., the hens are able to move about inside a barn without being confined to cages. They can also be fed the same as the conventional chicken above!

  • Free Range - "Implies" chickens feed on lush green pastures. Actually, it is not a regulated term for eggs so this can be used by absolutely anyone. Really all that’s needed is a door to the outside that gives the chickens “access” to an outdoor area, whether they actually use it or not. This is a meaningless term.

  • Organic - This means the hens were fed organic feed, (grown without commercial fertilizers or pesticides), and not given hormones or antibiotics or fed animal byproducts. Federal regulations state that they must have access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment.

  • Vegetarian - The hen is fed a vegetarian feed (not fed animal by-products which is offensive to some people). Chickens need protein in their diet and they are naturally omnivores, not vegetarians, and will naturally eat bugs, grubs, etc. This term is used to imply “healthier” in our anti-meat culture.

  • Pastured - This is the one most people ‘think’ the above mean - Pastured means the chickens were raised on pasture, with access to the sun, grass, bugs, and possibly supplemented with grains and other feed. Chickens are very social animals. Pastured chickens get the opportunity to run around, dust bathe, socialize, spread their wings, scratch in the dirt for bugs and worms, eat grass, weeds, bits of dirt (which they need and is natural for them).

Sometimes there is a combination of labels. If you are able to find “Pastured AND Organic”, then you would know you are getting the best eggs (from a store).

How can you be sure you are getting what you really want? Consider raising a few chickens of your own. You might be surprised how many people are doing it. I personally have three that I raised from chicks (photos below). I have a family of four (on most days – I have step children on the weekends), and I get approximately 18 eggs per week from my ‘girls’ – that is plenty for us (I actually have to give many away). I KNOW what they eat (grass, weeds, bugs, grains, sprouted wheat, and occasional leftovers – they will eat anything – one of mine actually caught a little lizard and gobbled it right up – this is all part of their natural diet) I also know where they live – they have a coop, but get free run of my backyard most of the time. I have NEVER seen nor eaten eggs that were as rich in flavor and color. There are many websites that support this growing trend. Check out This is a fun site with photos of coops, tips, lots of information and photos.

I'd like to hear from those of you who have raised a few (or want to) and what your experience is with the difference in quality of the eggs.



  1. I actually found your blog through We raise our own birds in our back yard, several silkie hens and roosters. They have free run of the back yard. After the first ones started to lay, we fell in love with eggs we had only dreamed of. Healthy, wonderfully flavored and flowing freely from our backyard. Store buying of eggs ended right there!

  2. I absolutely agree! There is no comparison and I was not a true believer until I saw the differences first hand. Before my girls were laying enough eggs to meet our needs, I was still buying. I experimented and cracked one from the store and one of my "home grown" eggs side by side, and mine had a rich orange colored yolk and the taste was a richer taste. The store egg had a lighter colored yolk and a milder flavor.

  3. You really need to check your facts. First off, no hens in the U.S. or Europe are fed hormones. Your picture of cage-free birds is actually a broiler barn and does not show the roosts, perches, and nest boxes that would be installed inside a layer barn. Beak tipping is for flock welfare. Even backyard enthusiasts have had problems with pecking even in healthy flocks. Could you imagine trying to control this in a large flock? The same people that cringe at beak tipping will advocate for pets to be spayed and neutered. The U.S. national organic standards do not allow birds to be caged and they must have access to pasture, weather permitting. Vegetarian feed was prompted by public outcry to the practice of feeding animal by-products to animals. Such practices led to mad-cow disease. Vegetarian feed doesn't speak to a healthier egg as much as it speaks to what the public sees as a barbaric pratice, regardless of what is natural for a hen. Do your homework!

  4. Mac, you are right about the hormones: Hormones in poultry feed are illegal. Hormones had a brief burst of popularity in the late Forties and early Fifties. They were banned in 1959. I removed the statement. I'm sure I meant antibiotics. I'm human :) I have read a bit about the organic label and I have seen a lot of consistency in that it has less to do with where they are raised and more to do with what they are fed. This is a huge improvement over the conventional raised chicken, but even though they offer the chickens the "opportunity: to go outside, it does't mean they will. Oftentimes the doors are very small and they are raised indoors for a time till they get used to laying in the right place, once they are raised indoors, they are less likely to go outside. I understand the whole beak tipping issue with the chickens, but it shouldn't be cut too deep where it leaves a wound - I'm sure some farms deal with it differently. This article is mean to educate people that the differences in the marketing don't always mean what you think it means. Of course not all farms are the same, and there are some loose guidelines on some of the labels. Don't take my word for it, definitely, do the research and find out about the eggs that are specifically provided to your supermarket.

  5. I don't have to go too far for that research. My wife and I have a small, USDA certified organic layer operation on our farm. We produce 60,000 dozen eggs a year(or rather, our well cared for hens produce them.) It's a rather small setup as far as commercial operations go, but we enjoy it and have a little income from it.

    Here is a link to the federal regulations regarding the U.S. National Organic Program. Please note the part about "Livestock Living Conditions". These are the standards, regardless of the many blogs on the web that give half-facts and supposition.

  6. Mac, Thank you for that direct link. I made changes to the organic category based on the official description. This is VERY good to understand!