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July 3, 2014

How to Read Egg Carton Labels

A brief guide to labels and animal welfare

The Humane Society of the United States

The vast number of consumer labels affixed to egg cartons can leave a shopper feeling dazed and confused. One carton may label its eggs "Natural." Another carton may call them "Free Range," while yet another may claim its eggs are "Certified Organic." How are thoughtful consumers supposed to know what these labels and claims really mean?

The truth is that the majority of egg labels have little relevance to animal welfare or, if they do, they have no official standards or any mechanism to enforce them. This page is intended as a primer on the main components of good welfare for egg-laying hens, as well as an introduction to what the terms on egg carton labels actually signify. For more specific information, we encourage you to do some research into the hen welfare practices of particular egg producers to get a better sense of how they treat their hens.

Some Important Benchmarks

  • Space – The amount of floor space each hen receives. Caged hens typically receive the least amount of space, ranging from 67 square inches per bird (less than a letter-sized sheet of paper) to 116 square inches per bird (less than a legal-sized sheet of paper). At the other end of the spectrum, some pasture-raised hens are given more than 100 times that amount of space per animal.
  • Natural behaviors – Whether the hens can perform important natural behaviors, such as foraging, walking, nesting, perching, spreading their wings and dust-bathing. Hens in battery cages can barely move an inch, let alone perform such important natural behaviors, while hens not kept in cages—and particularly those who go outdoors—can perform many if not all of these behaviors.
  • Forced molting through starvation – Whether the hens are forced to molt (lose feathers) through starvation in order to manipulate the egg production cycle.
  • Beak cutting – Whether the hens have had partial removal of their beaks, most commonly performed within the first few days of life, supposedly to reduce incidence of injurious pecking.

The Labels†

Cage-Free

As the term implies, hens laying eggs labeled as "cage-free" are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no mandatory third-party auditing, though producers can choose to get certified according to the standard of one of the organizations below.

Free-Range

While the USDA has defined the meaning of "free-range" for some poultry products, there are no government-regulated standards in "free-range" egg production required to make the claim. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Because they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no mandatory third-party auditing, though producers can choose to get certified according to the standard of one of the organizations below.

Free-Roaming

Also known as "free-range," the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in "free-roaming" egg production. See the description for "free-range" above.

Pasture-Raised

The USDA has not defined the meaning of "pasture-raised" for egg production, and therefore no government-regulated standards in "pasture-raised" egg production are required to make the claim. Typically, pasture-raised hens are kept outdoors for most of the year, on a spacious pasture covered with living plants, and are kept indoors at night for protection. While on the pasture, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as dust-bathing and foraging. However, because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount of time spent on the pasture, the amount of space per bird, or the quality of the pasture. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no mandatory third-party auditing, though producers can choose to get certified according to the standards of one of the organizations below.

Certified Organic

The birds are uncaged inside barns, and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.

Vegetarian-Fed

These birds' feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals' living conditions. In fact, this label often signifies that the hens spend no time outside foraging.

Natural

This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

Farm Fresh

This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

Fertile

These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.

Omega-3 Enriched

This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

Pasteurized

This label claim has no relevance to animal welfare.

The Third-Party Certifiers

Certified Humane

Certified Humane has three levels of certification: (1) regular (cage-free), (2) free range and (3) pasture-raised. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. For cage-free, the birds are uncaged inside barns but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust-bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. For free-range, the birds must be provided with access to an outdoor area for at least six hours per day. The outdoor area need not have any living vegetation, but it must provide each hen with at least 2 square feet (288 square inches) of outdoor space. For pasture-raised, the birds must be placed on a pasture for at least six hours per day, 12 months per year. The pasture must be covered mainly with living vegetation, and each bird must be provided with 108 square feet (15,552 square inches) of pasture. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care.

Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved has the highest animal welfare standards of any third-party auditing program. However, they only cover flocks of fewer than 500 birds. The birds are cage-free with at least 1.8 square feet (259 square inches) of floor space provided per bird, and they must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust-bathing. Hens must also be provided continuous access to an outdoor area for ranging and foraging. This outdoor area must be covered with growing vegetation and must provide at least 4 square feet (576 square inches) per bird. There are requirements for stocking density, perching and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation and beak cutting are prohibited, as is feed containing meat or animal byproducts. Animal Welfare Approved is a program of the Animal Welfare Institute.

American Humane Certified

American Humane Certified has four levels of certification: (1) enriched colony cages, (2) cage-free, (3) free-range and (4) pasture. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.  For colony cages, each animal who is confined in these so-called "furnished cages" has 0.8 square feet (116 square inches), less than the space of a legal-sized sheet of paper. An abundance of scientific evidence demonstrates that these cages are detrimental to animal welfare, and nearly every major US and EU animal welfare group expresses serious concern about them. There are some requirements for perching and nesting boxes. For cage-free, the birds are kept uncaged inside barns but may be kept indoors at all times. Each hen must be provided with 1.25 square feet (180 square inches) of floor space, as well as access to perches and nesting boxes. For free-range, each hen must be provided with 21.8 square feet (3,139 square inches) of outdoor space, though no minimum durational period of outdoor access is specified. For pasture, each hen must be provided with 108 square feet (15,552 square inches) of outdoor space on a pasture with a substantial cover of living vegetation, though no minimum durational period of pasture access is specified. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. American Humane Certified is a program of American Humane Association.

Food Alliance Certified

The birds are cage-free and must be provided with at least 1.23 square feet (177 square inches) of floor space per bird. Access to outdoors or natural daylight is required for at least eight hours per day. If an outdoor area is provided, it must have living vegetation. There are specific requirements for perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. No meat or animal byproducts are permitted in feed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. The birds are cage-free and access to outdoors or natural daylight is required. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. There are specific requirements for stocking density, perching, space and nesting boxes. Starvation-based molting is prohibited. Beak cutting is allowed. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. Food Alliance Certified is a program of the Food Alliance.

United Egg Producers Certified

United Egg Producers Certified has two levels of certification: (1) caged and (2) cage-free. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed. The overwhelming majority of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program, which permits cruel and inhumane factory farm practices. For caged, hens have 0.46 square feet (67 square inches) of cage space per bird, less area than a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren battery cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, such as perching, nesting, foraging or even spreading their wings. For cage-free, hens are uncaged inside barns but may be kept indoors at all times. Each hen must be provided at least 1 square foot (144 square inches) of floor space, and some perching and nesting requirements exist. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing. This is a program of the United Egg Producers.


Virtually all hens in commercial egg operations—whether cage or cage-free—come from hatcheries that kill all male chicks shortly after hatching. The males are of no use to the egg industry because they don't lay eggs and aren't bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry. Common methods of killing male chicks include suffocation, gassing and grinding. Hundreds of millions of male chicks are killed at hatcheries each year in the United States.

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