Cage-Free? Free Range? 5 Egg Terms, Decoded

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Picking out a carton of eggs at the grocery store can be a surprisingly tough task. While in the past, choosing a carton was as simple as making sure none of the eggs were cracked, nowadays, eggs come with all kinds of confusing labels. Whether you’re struggling to identify the most humanely sourced eggs, or just curious about what all those little labels mean, here are five egg terms to demystify your next trip to the market.


An egg carton with a “USDA Organic” seal means those eggs have been certified organic by the agriculture department’s National Organic Program, and that the farms they come from are inspected every year (watch out for products that claim to be organic without the USDA seal—at best, they could have a different definition of “organic,” and at worst, they could be duping you). For fruits and veggies, a “USDA Organic” label implies plants were grown without synthetic fertilizers or pesticides, genetic engineering or sewage sludge, but when it comes to eggs, that label also refers to the way the chickens were treated. USDA Organic eggs come from chickens who consume organic food, are not given antibiotics, and live cage free with some amount of access to the outdoors.


While many chickens spend their lives in tiny battery cages, a cage-free label ensures that chickens are at least a little less, well, cooped up. Cage-free chickens spend their days in an open barn instead of a cage, and are able to move around freely. Although cage-free chickens generally have more space than caged chickens, they are usually kept indoors. The amount of space and the kinds of resources provided to chickens also vary from farm to farm: While some farms give cage-free chickens perches and dust-bathing materials, others are still packed closely together and receive little more than a nest box and a bit of extra space to flap around. In Canada, cage-free eggs are generally labeled “Free Run.”


Like cage-free chickens, free range chickens are kept in open barns instead of cages. Unlike cage-free chickens, they also have access to the great outdoors. Though the amount and type of outdoor time free range chickens receive varies from farm to farm, free range chickens are always given some time outside to poke around, bask in the sunlight, and even hunt down a few tasty worms.


While terms like “Free Range” and “Cage-Free” denote very specific practices, the term “All Natural” can mean pretty much anything—or nothing. There is no strict definition for what constitutes a “natural” food, so “All Natural” labels can be misleading. Instead of choosing “All Natural” eggs, look for labels like “Cage-Free” and “Free Range” which describe how chickens actually live, or labels like “USDA Organic” or “Certified Humane” which ensure a governmental or independent organization has assessed and approved the living conditions of the chickens.


The “Certified Humane Raised & Handled” label is given out by a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals through the creation of strict regulations and standards of treatment. The group doles out “Certified Humane” labels for a range of farm animals, including cows, pigs, goats, and bison, and has strict and specific standards for the proper care of each animal. Be wary of “Humanely Raised” or “Humane” labels, however; like the “All Natural” label, they’re vague, and unregulated, promising nothing. For chickens, a “Certified Humane” label guarantees that the birds are cage-free, have access to the outdoors and grass (weather-permitting), are given antibiotic- and hormone-free feed, dust-bathing materials, and unlimited access to fresh water.