What Do All Those Egg Carton Labels Mean?

And what if eggs came with a cruelty fee?


At the end of my previous post, I said, “So before you grab those cheap, nutrient deficient supermarket eggs, stop and think about the price paid by the hens who laid them. If a price were put on their suffering and added to the price of the eggs, could you afford them?”

This has made me wonder what a cruelty fee would look like, so I decided to write a post exploring that idea. How could I possibly put a price on a life of suffering and torment? Of necessity, I will also go into the meanings of all the different labels that you find on egg cartons. My hypothetical cruelty fee is near the end of this page.

United Egg Producers Certified: Produced in Compliance With United Egg Producers’ Animal Husbandry Guidelines

The United Egg Producers is the egg industry’s trade association. Their primary interest seems to be profit for egg producers. This label appears on cheap eggs, and has very minimal requirements. It allows the birds to be caged, often with less space than the size of a sheet of paper. As long as they can “stand comfortably upright in their cage,” they are eligible for this certification. Beak trimming and forced molting are allowed. Ammonia level requirements are very inadequate and not well enforced.

Caged Hens in all their misery

For cage free operations, there must be a mere 1-1.5 square feet of space per bird, and there is no requirement for outdoor access. These hens are generally fed cheap GMO feed, and are allowed to be fed animal by-products, but even organic eggs can carry this certification. When her production has declined too much (often around 16-18 months), a hen may suffer from malnutrition, disease, or a prolapsed uterus and will likely either be sent to a rendering plant or killed with carbon monoxide. All the male chicks that hatch in the production of the laying hens are killed after hatching, often by being tossed alive into a grinding machine or by being gassed. Fortunately, there is new technology being tested that will allow sexing of partially developed eggs, and UEP has pledged to switch to these new methods and stop killing the male chicks by 2020.

Basically, if a producer can show that the hens can stand up and have food and water, as well as light, they can get this practically meaningless certification. These eggs would certainly have the highest cruelty tax. For more information on the UEP label, see this website: United Egg Producers Certified.

UEP certified eggs: low in price, high in cruelty

Cage Free Eggs

These eggs might have the UEP label, and were touched on in the previous section. They may or may not be organic. The hens are kept in large barns, many of which are tiered in order to fit more hens. There are usually tens of thousands in each barn with not more than 1 1/2 feet of space per hen. It might be considered a step up from caged hens, as the birds can at least move around a bit and even spread their wings out. They also usually have perches so they can rest properly, although there may not be enough for all the hens. They also have actual nests for their eggs. However, air quality tends to be worse than for caged hens, cannibalism and mortality rates are also worse, and the hens are more prone to painful keel bone injuries caused by bumping into structures in the aviary or into each other.  For more information on cage free hens, go here: Are Cage-Free Eggs All They’re Cracked Up to Be?

‘Cage Free’ Hens in a tiered aviary

Organic Eggs

In theory, this is a step up from cage-free. In practice, the only real difference may be that the hens eat organic feed and do not receive prohibited substances such as antibiotics. Organic standards state the following:

205.239 (a) The producer of an organic livestock operation must establish and maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of animals, including: (1). Year-round access for all animals to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air, clean water and direct sunlight suitable to the species, its stage of production, the climate, and the environment. Continuous total confinement of any animal indoors is prohibited.

However, organic egg producers have fully taken advantage of a loophole in the wording if this standard. They will put a small door in their overcrowded barns, leading outside to an enclosed and cramped concrete porch area, and call that access to the outdoors. Never mind the fact that only a few hens would ever be able to fit out there at a time, even if they could find the tiny door. In addition, since they have been inside their whole lives of 16-21 weeks by the time they gain this ‘outdoor access,’ it is not appealing to them. The majority of organic eggs are produced on this industrial scale model. For more on this see the Cornucopia Scrambled Egg Report.

Barn with ‘outdoor access’

Free Range Eggs

The USDA definition of free range is, “Producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” Many of these hens have the same ‘access’ to the outdoors as the organic hens explained previously. Often they just have a diminutive porch like the one in the above picture, but are not really better off than the cage free hens. Some eggs with this label really do have genuine outdoor runs that the hens spend time in, so research each producer if you want to know more about how their hens are treated.

Omega-3 Enriched and Vegetarian Fed Eggs

Some producers give their hens a commercial diet high in omega-3s to increase that nutrient in the eggs. If the hens were on pasture, their eggs would naturally be high in omega-3s, so this is an effort to produce healthier eggs (with a higher selling price) while still using the low cost commercial production system. For more on this, read the first part of this article: Omega-3s in eggs.

Some egg cartons brag that their hens are fed a vegetarian diet. However, chickens are not vegetarians but omnivores, so this is nothing to brag about. If you ever get a chance to toss some insects or worms out to chickens of any age, you will see that they go absolutely crazy for them, like these chicks! They’ll even eat mice if they can catch them. 

These cage Free, vegetarian fed, Omega-3 enriched eggs are still high in cruelty.

Pasture Raised Eggs

These are the eggs that really stand out, and probably would not carry the hypothetical cruelty tax. However, since it is not a well regulated term, it’s a good idea to look into the producers of these eggs to find out if the hens truly are pastured. These chickens are generally either in a fixed building and are rotated around the surrounding pasture, or they are in mobile housing which is moved regularly to new pasture. The mobile house is preferable, as with fixed housing it can be difficult to keep up the pasture, and the hens may eat it down to the ground and end up on dirt instead of pasture. This is not cruel, but it is deceitful to call the eggs pasture raised.

Pastured hens from http://www.helenshens.com

Hens in both models may get plenty of fresh air and sunshine, have space to forage and dust bathe, and perform all their other natural and instinctive behaviors. Flock sizes are usually not larger than 500 in mobile housing, but up to 20,000 in fixed housing. The pasture is properly cared for with mobile housing, so the hens always have plenty of forage, in addition to their usually organic feed. In fixed housing, pasture may or may not be properly maintained. These hens live longer than their commercial counterparts, often being sold to backyard chicken keepers when production has declined, or used as stew birds. They are allowed to just be chickens, rather than expected to be egg laying machines.

Pastured hens in fixed houseing

Pictured below are two egg cartons. One is from a company that uses fixed housing, and shows a pretty decent comparison of some different labels. Their hens may or may not have actual pasture, and many of them may choose to remain inside most of the time. Note the American Humane Certified label, which will be discussed in the next section. The second carton is from a producer which allows far more space per hen outside. Note the Certified Humane label. Both of these eggs are likely cruelty free or low cruelty, with the bottom one more likely to be from truly pastured hens. For more on this see the Cornucopia Scrambled Egg Report

From a carton for pastured eggs with fixed housing
From a carton for pastured eggs with mobile housing

Animal Welfare Labels

Finally, there are several different labels that may appear on egg cartons purporting to assure consumers that the hens are humanely treated. However, only Animal Welfare Approved requires true outdoor access and prohibits beak trimming. 

Certified Humane by Humane Farm Animal Care
  • No requirement for outdoor access.
  • No limit on the size of the flock.
  • Beak trimming is allowed.
  • Minimum of only 1-1.5 feet per bird
American Humane Certified by the American Humane Association
  • No requirement for outdoor access.
  • No limit on the size of the flock.
  • Beak trimming is allowed.
  • Minimum of only 1-1.5 feet per bird
Food Alliance Certified by Food Alliance
  • No requirement for outdoor access.
  • If an outdoor area exists, it must be covered to prevent contamination by manure from wild birds and to prevent aerial attacks.
  • Minimum of only 1-1.5 feet per bird
Animal Welfare Approved by the Animal Welfare Institute
  • Recommends flock size be limited to 500 birds. Producers can have more than 500 birds on their farms; they just need to be separated into different flocks.
  • Requires outdoor access: All chickens must have access to areas of retreat both inside and out on the range.
  • Beak trimming is prohibited.
  • The use of dual purpose breeds so that male chicks can be raised as meat type birds and female chicks can be raised as laying hens is recommended.

  This is the logo that will assure you that your eggs, as well as other animal products, come from truly humanely pasture raised animals. 

Hypothetical Cruelty Fee on Eggs

So, what would a cruelty fee look like anyway? Since the cheapest eggs also come from the most inhumanely treated hens, using a percentage of the sale price would not have much effect on those eggs. Instead, we will use a fixed amount for each item on the cruelty list, and will charge by the egg. The fee will be $.03 per egg, which would come to $.36 per dozen for each item on the list that applies to the hens who laid those eggs. So if 3 items apply, the total fee for a dozen of those eggs would be $1.08, but if 10 items applied then the fee would be $3.60. Here is my proposed list of cruelty items:

  1. Caged 
  2. High ammonia levels
  3. Beak trimmed
  4. No natural light
  5. Cannot dust bathe
  6. Cannot forage
  7. Cannot spread wings
  8. Cannot nest
  9. Not enough roosts for all hens
  10. Do not spend meaningful time outside
  11. Male chicks inhumanely killed
  12. Flock sizes of more than 500 hens
  13. Heavy Overcrowding- fewer than 3 square feet per bird
  14. Medium Overcrowding- fewer than 6 square feet per bird
  15. Light Overcrowding- fewer than 10 square feet per bird
  16. Forced molting
  17. End of life suffering

I was comparing egg prices at the store recently, and the cheapest I saw was $.49 for a dozen or $.99 for 2 dozen. More than likely, all of the above apply to the hens who laid those eggs, with the possible exception of forced molting which is no longer common practice. So we’ll put a fee on those eggs for 16 of the 17 items. We will add the fee for all 3 overcrowding categories, so that heavier overcrowding has a higher fee than lighter overcrowding does. For one dozen eggs, 16 items x $.36 is $5.76. Add in the original cost of the eggs and those cheap eggs now cost you $6.25, which is comparable to the current price of pasture raised organic eggs. Those $.99 for 2 dozen would carry a fee of $11.16, for a total of $12.15.

What about cage free eggs? Sauder’s organic cage-free eggs are $3.79 at my local Kroger. This note on their packaging makes their eggs sound pretty cruelty free, but are they really? According to the Cornucopia Institute, not so much. Although they do have perches and natural light in their barns, the hens only have about 1.5 square feet of space each, with less than 1 square foot of outdoor space for each hen and not enough exits. They will get dinged for items 2, 3, 4, 6, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 17. For those 12 items, the fee on a dozen eggs would be $4.32, bringing their total price up to $8.11.

Read between the lines, and you’ll see that these organic eggs likely come from hens in large, overcrowded barns who may never see the outdoors.

Now let’s take a pastured egg producer like Vital Farms pictured further up the page. Their eggs sell for $5.99 at Kroger. According to the Cornucopia Institute none of the items on the cruelty list apply, except for possibly the killing of male chicks. I could not find definitive information on that, but they are working to end the slaughter. Even if males are cruelly killed, it would only add $.36 per dozen, bringing the price up to $6.35, which is still less than what the Sauder’s eggs would be, and barely more than what ‘cheap’ eggs from caged hens would be.

Are you ready to start buying cruelty free eggs but confused as to which you should buy? If you can find a small, local producer near you or at a farmer’s market, chances are those hens are well treated. Better yet, get your own small flock of hens if you can. Not only will they provide cruelty free, nutritious eggs for you, they will also help with pest control, give you great manure for your garden (while turning your compost for you), and provide you with hours of entertainment! Otherwise, take a look at the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Score Card. It lists multiple egg producers and grades them on the several criteria listed below, and taken from the Cornucopia Institute’s Scrambled Eggs Report, which I highly recommend if you have more interest in this area.  

To help organic consumers determine which brands of organic eggs and their corresponding production models comply with their ethical expectations, The Cornucopia Institute developed a scorecard that grades organic egg brands. Ratings are based on the producers’ answers to a comprehensive questionnaire about production practices, unannounced site inspections, aerial photography, satellite imagery, and extensive industry interviews.

The scorecard allows consumers and wholesale buyers to make discerning purchasing decisions, rewarding the individual farms, cooperatives, and corporations that have made the investments necessary to comply with both the letter of the federal laws governing organics, and the values-based expectations of organic egg customers. Brands rated by Cornucopia fall in one of the following five categories:

“5-EGG” RATING: “EXEMPLARY”—BEYOND ORGANIC:  Producers in this top tier manage diverse, small- to medium-scale family farms. They generally raise their hens in mobile housing on well-managed and ample pasture. They sell eggs locally or regionally under their farm’s brand name, mostly through farmers’ markets, food cooperatives, independently owned natural and grocery stores, and, sometimes, through larger chains like Whole Foods. Often they raise their own replacement pullets from chicks and begin to offer hens outdoor access around 6-10 weeks of age, once they have fully feathered.

“4-EGG” RATING: “EXCELLENT”—ORGANIC PROMOTING OUTDOOR ACCESS: Producers in this category provide ample outdoor space and make a credible effort to encourage their birds to go outside. Most provide excellent outdoor environments, often either rotated pastures or well-managed outdoor runs, with an adequate number of popholes/doors for the chickens to reach the outdoors. Flock sizes are typically larger than most 5-egg rated operations, and hens spend much of their time (i.e. during the night and inclement weather) inside fixed barns.

“3-EGG” RATING: “GOOD TO VERY GOOD”—ORGANIC, COMPLYING WITH MINIMUM USDA STANDARDS: Brands with a three-egg rating are meeting the minimum standards to qualify for legal organic status. Many are very good choices for consumers. Eggs from brands in this category either come from family-scale farms that provide outdoor runs for their chickens, or from larger-scale farms where meaningful outdoor space is provided. All producers in this category appear committed to providing at least 2 square feet of outdoor space per hen. However, the percentage of birds that actually venture outside in this category varies wildly. Many brands do not offer a very hospitable environment for the birds outdoors and purchase their pullets from contractors who confine them to buildings for the first 16 weeks of their lives. They are much less apt to go outdoors once they are trained to the henhouse even if the operators provide adequate doors and space. Others allow young birds outdoors as early as six weeks and provide shade and water in the outdoor run.

“2-EGG” RATING: “FAIR”—SOME QUESTIONS REMAIN CONCERNING COMPLIANCE WITH FEDERAL STANDARDS: These brands represent either industrial-scale operations or others with outstanding questions or concerns regarding their compliance with USDA organic regulations. By filling out Cornucopia’s voluntary survey, transparently sharing details regarding egg production and animal husbandry, these organizations distinguish themselves from the ethically challenged brands below.

“1-EGG” RATING: INDUSTRIAL ORGANICS—NO MEANINGFUL OUTDOOR ACCESS AND/OR NON-TRANSPARENT: Brands with “1-egg” ratings generally represent industrial-scale egg operations that grant no meaningful outdoor access and those that chose not to participate in this survey. “Outdoor access” on these operations generally refers to covered concrete porches, barely accessible to the chickens. Means of egress from buildings are, many times, intentionally small to discourage birds from going outside, allowing for only a small percentage of birds to have “access” to the outdoors. No producers in this category were willing to participate in The Cornucopia Institute’s project, and none shared their production practices with Cornucopia researchers. This is disturbing to many organic consumers, since transparency has always been viewed as a hallmark of the organic food movement.

All producers received numerous invitations to participate in this study delivered by certified mail, email reminders, and phone calls.

Author: Rachel

We aim to produce our own food in as natural and sustainable a manner as possible, while selling any surplus to help pay for what we can't produce.

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