The VT Egg Label Decoder

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The VT Egg Label Decoder

Having trouble decoding the various labels you see printed on egg cartons these days? Here’s a quick primer on what the labels mean. (Buyer beware: many are misleading!)

CERTIFIED ORGANIC (USDA ORGANIC)

PROS

not caged

housed in barns or warehouses

access to the outdoors is required

fed an organic vegetarian diet

no antibiotics or pesticides used

third-party auditing (inspection through an independent source) is used

CONS

amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is not specified

beak cutting (trimming of the beak to prevent cannibalism in densely populated conditions) is allowed

forced molting (withdrawal of food and light in effort to force birds to shed their feathers to prepare for another egg production cycle) is allowed

FREE RANGE

PROS

usually not caged

some access to outdoors

able to perform natural behaviors such as creating nests and foraging (the act of searching for food)

CONS

no written standards are set by the USDA for “free-range” egg production in terms of stock density, actual access to the outdoors, or living conditions quality

beak trimming and forced molting are allowed

No third-party auditing

CERTIFIED HUMANE

PROS

not caged

live in barns or warehouses

capable of engaging in natural behaviors

written standards for stock density

prohibits forced molting through starvation

third-party auditing is used

CONS

may be kept indoors at all times

beak trimming is allowed

CAGE FREE

PROS

not caged

able to engage in many natural behaviors such as walking, nesting, and spreading their wings

CONS

unlikely to go outdoors

beak trimming and forced molting are allowed

no third-party auditing

FREE ROAMING

PROS

usually not caged

some outdoor access

usually allowed to create nests and forage

CONS

No written standards by the USDA for “free-roaming” egg production

No third-party auditing

UNITED EGG PRODUCERS CERTIFIED

PROS

prohibits forced molting

CONS

almost all U.S. egg producers meet the minimum standards of this program, which allows inhumane factory-farm practices

hens confined in very small cages (67 square inches of cage space per bird)

cannot engage in any natural behaviors, including spreading their wings

permits beak trimming

VEGETARIAN FED

PROS

feed contains no animal by-products

CONS

the “vegetarian-fed” certification sets no standard for birds’ living conditions

This information was obtained from The Humane Society of the United States’s “A Brief Guide to Egg Carton Labels and Their Relevance to Animal Welfare.”

For a more detailed investigation, please refer to Vegetarian Journal’s “Egg Labels and Certifications: What Do They Mean?”

—Anna Monette Roberts