Balancing our budget while providing nutritious, healthy options is always on my mind when preparing my grocery list. In addition, I try to make purchases that most positively impact the welfare of the animal involved. When it comes to eggs, your choice may depend on the factors important to you. If you’re anything like me, the prices and descriptions on the cartons vary so much and the refrigerated eggs section can quickly become an overwhelming decision making arena (especially on a day you have a tired ticking time bomb toddler in tow…). I did some research to become more aware of what I was purchasing prior to making my trip: In the briefest language possible, here are the meanings of a few common terms you might see on the egg cartons next time you head to you local market:
Cage Free: This is a commercial designation, rather than USDA. By it’s simplest definition it should mean the chickens are not stuffed into tiny cages or boxes, and often in an open area. Most do not have access to the outside and depending on the farm, the hens may be afforded nesting boxes and perches.
Free Range or Free Roaming: The USDA definition is simply that the chickens have access to the outside – no specification of duration of time, quality, or size of the range.
Organic: These eggs must meet the USDA’s National Organic Standards and are subjected to routine inspection to ensure they are in compliance. The chickens are fed organic feed (never genetically engineered products), and don’t receive any antibiotics or vaccines. Some organic farms still overcrowd their hens.
Conventionally Grown: (not a term, per se, but these will probably be the ones with the lowest price) These eggs most likely come from chickens with living conditions that include tight cages, are feed from GMO crops, and may receive antibiotics/vaccines.
Pasture-raised: This label is becoming more common with smaller farms – it means the birds are raised outside, actually on a pasture with shelter when they choose. Also not a USDA defined term so treatment of the hens can vary, but in my experience the cartons of these kinds of eggs include detailed information in regards to how the specific farm raises their birds. The pasture-raised eggs I purchase even come with a mini newsletter chronicling the birds and their lifestyle, noting every one of their hens enjoy 108 square feet of space (my favorite part of the news letter is the Bird of the Month, this month it’s the lovely Lucille!).
If you are interested in finding out more about the connection between egg carton labels and the confinement of the hens, there is more in-depth information available. Knowing what we are paying for is one of the first steps to making the best possible choices, not to mention we are putting our money where our mouth is to the growers and manufacturers of the foods we eat and serve our families.