What image comes to mind when you think free range or cage free? My images of hens roaming a green pasture in the warm sunshine next to a red barn have been challenged.
In the U.S., eggs are classified according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards. Covering the egg cartons you see terms like, “All-Natural”, “Cage-Free”, “Free-Range”, “Farm Fresh”, “Organic”, “No Hormones”, and “Omega-3”. And the longer you stare at them, the more confusing it can be.
The labels on egg cartons are not only confusing, they can also be misleading. What you might think the labels mean may not be what the label means. Confused?
What do the labels mean?
Grade A / Grade AA
Grade AA and Grade A indicate eggs that have thick whites, yolks that are free from defects, and clean shells.
Fed with organic feed (no additives, animal byproducts or GMO), these hens live cage free with access to the outside. Organic certification also means maintaining of high animal welfare standards. Hens cannot been treated with antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides, fertilizers from synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge, bioengineering or ionizing radiation. The USDA inspects the farm before they are allowed to use the “organic” label.
This term has been approved by the USDA for animals that were raised in a sheltered facility with unlimited access to food, water, and access to the outdoors. It does not necessarily mean the animal actually went outside, only that there was a door to the outside. Free range gives no indication of the outdoor conditions.
This simply means the animals were not kept in cages. They are still in an enclosed facility, but with unlimited access to food and fresh. Cage free does not give any indication of the conditions of the facility they’re enclosed in. As I once believed, cage-free does NOT mean the animals were free to roam in pastures, or that they have access to outdoors.
The USDA has not developed a definition for this term yet, however many farmers use it to distinguish themselves from “free range” farms. Pasture raised means animals are free to roam around outdoors with unlimited access to food, fresh water, and indoor shelter in case of inclement weather. This different from “free range” in that pasture-raised animals spend more time outdoors than they do indoors. Though it’s often the case, don’t assume the pasture-raised animals were not given antibiotics or growth hormones or whether or not the animals were given organic feed or GMO.
Antibiotic Free Eggs
According to the USDA, this label can be used on beef and poultry products, provided that the producer supplies “sufficient documentation … that the animals were raised without antibiotics.”
An egg with this label indicates the hen is fed a diet enriched with fish oil and flaxseed to have a higher amount of heart healthy Omega-3 fatty acid. How much higher? The egg producers aren’t required to provide that information.
This label doesn’t guarantee that the hens have ever seen the light of day. Sure, the birds are ‘uncaged’ but they can be contained inside. There ARE requirements for such things as stocking density, number of perches and laying boxes.
A study done by Mother Earth News, found that compared to conventional American eggs, real free-range eggs have less cholesterol and saturated fat, plus more vitamins A and E, beta carotene and polyunsaturated omega-3 fatty acids.
A little less confused now?
The bottom line according to the labels, the eggs to buy are certified humane, organic, and pasture raised.
Why is food labeling in the U.S. so confusing? Do the labels mean what you thought they mean?
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