Egg label primer

We at Haute Pasture do not often buy commercially-produced eggs, so while recently browsing the egg section of our local grocery, we were intrigued by a “certified humanely raised” label on an egg carton. Does that actually mean anything? We didn’t know, and maybe some of you don’t, so here is our egg label primer.

(First we went to the source, the USDA website. It is impossible to navigate. So the following information is compiled from various sites, listed below. These labels are only lightly regulated, mostly by 3rd parties, and are complied with on a voluntary basis.)

Cheat Sheet

Which labels explicitly prohibit beak cutting?

  • Animal Welfare Approved

Which labels explicitly prohibit forced molting? (Forced molting is the starving of hens to trigger an increase in egg production)

  • American Humane Certified
  • Animal Welfare Approved
  • Certified Humane
  • Food Alliance Certified
  • United Egg Producers Certified

Which labels require hens to have outdoor access? (Note that the amount and quality of outdoor access required is generally undefined, except for as noted below.)

  • Animal Welfare Approved (Continuous outdoor perching is required)
  • Certified Naturally Grown
  • Certified Organic
  • Free Range/Free Roaming
  • Pasture-Raised

Which labels require farms to allow hens to act like chickens (i.e., perch, nest, and dust bathe)?

  • Animal Welfare Approved
  • Certified Humane
  • Certified Naturally Grown
  • Food Alliance Certified (but outdoor access can be substituted with natural daylight)
  • Pasture-Raised

Which labels sound humane but allow for the cramming of hens into tiny spaces?

  • American Humane Certified
  • Natural (this label has no requirements for the welfare of the hens)
  • Omega-3 Enriched (this label has no requirements for the welfare of the hens)
  • United Egg Producers Certified
  • Vegetarian-Fed (this label has no requirements for the welfare of the hens)

The Labels

Animal Welfare Approved: Unfortunately, no producers currently adhere to these, the toughest restrictions regarding the welfare of the hens. The hens live naturally: they are able to nest, perch, dust bathe, and molt. Their living quarters must follow requirements regarding population density and nesting boxes. Beak cutting and forced molting are prohibited.

Pasture-Raised: The hens are raised outdoors, on grass, in movable structures. They are fed an organic diet, and are able to forage for the critters which are natural sources of food for chickens.

American Grassfed: This applies less to poultry than to ruminants whose natural diet is grass. American Grassfed certified meat generally means the animal was raised on a diet consisting of only grass and its mother’s milk. The rules are a bit different for poultry, as a grass-only diet isn’t natural for birds, so grass only needs to be a portion of what they eat. Specific standards are not available online at this time.

Certified Naturally Grown: Animals must be primarily pasture-raised, eating pesticide- and medicine-free food. They put an emphasis on locally-sourced food, so don’t require that feed be certified organic.

Certified Humane: The standards dictate that the hens get free access to vegetarian food and fresh water, and they may only be fed antibiotics if medically required. Forced molting is prohibited. Rules dictate space, air quality, and lighting requirements. The hens may stretch their wings and dust bathe. Outdoor access is not required.

Certified Organic: The hens are cage-free indoors, with required access to the outdoors. The amount and quality of that outdoor access is undefined, however. Beak cutting and forced molting are allowed. The hens’ diet must be organic and vegetarian, and pesticide- and antibiotic-free.

Food Alliance Certified: Hens are cage-free and must be able to nest, perch, and dust bathe, and have outdoor access OR natural daylight. Forced molting is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. Rules govern space per hen, perching, and nesting boxes.

Free-Range/Free-Roaming: There is no standard definition of free-range in the egg industry. The hens are generally cage-free and have some outdoor access; however, the doors may be small and the window of opportunity to go outside may be so short that the hens never actually get outdoors. There are no dietary restrictions for free-range egg-producing hens. Beak cutting and forced molting are permitted.

Cage-Free: This simply means the hens are not kept in cages, nothing more. While the hens may move around and stretch their wings, beak cutting and forced molting are permitted.

American Humane Certified: Descriptions of rules are vague for this label, and their standards documents are unreadable. They certify caged environments, cage-free, and free-range. Some sources claim that this certification allows hens to be stuffed in cages, where they can’t spread their wings. However, the Massachusetts SPCA endorses the certification, saying the hens must be cage-free. Forced molting is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed.

United Egg Producers Certified: This standard allows hens to be stuffed into a tiny space in a cage, where they cannot spread their wings, perch, or nest. Forced molting is prohibited, but debeaking is allowed. From the Humane Society’s website:

The United Egg Producers is a trade group that represents egg factory farms and promotes the confinement of hens in cages. Although the UEP certifies cage-free facilities, it mostly certifies factory farms that cage birds—an abuse that some top egg-producing states have made illegal and are phasing out, and that consumers and numerous major companies oppose.

Fertile: The hens lived with roosters, which means they were probably cage-free. There are otherwise no restrictions for this label.

Vegetarian-Fed: This label only relates to the diet of the hens. The hens are fed a diet that contains no animal byproducts, except for eggs.

Omega-3 Enriched: This label only relates to the diet of the hens. These hens are fed a supplement, such as flax seed, to increase their Omega-3 intake.

Sources: The Humane Society, CertifiedHumane.org, Humane Food Labels, Cage Free Eggs, American Humane Certified article in Natural News, MSPCA, American Grassfed, Certified Naturally Grown, EggIndustry.com, Eat Wild

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4 thoughts on “Egg label primer

  1. Wow, the diversity in egg production out there is mind-boggling. Thank you, Haute, for making it all a little more transparent. Plus I get to feel smug because AWI is my favorite charity donation each year!

  2. The United Egg Producers is a discredited trade organization with a sordid history of consumer fraud and animal cruelty. The “UEP Certified” program allows hens to be confined in cages that provide each animal less space than a sheet of paper to spend her life. More at http://www.humanesociety.org/uep

  3. Pingback: Plane reading | Haute Pasture

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