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How to Decipher Egg Carton Labels

The truth behind what “cage-free,” “free-range” and other common terms mean (and don’t mean) for animal welfare

  • Many farmers raise chickens in battery cages that restrict the birds' movements, leaving them no room to spread their wings or even turn around. Photo by The HSUS

  • Studies show that salmonella is more common among chickens raised in battery cages. Photo by The HSUS

  • The HSUS has encouraged several companies to adopt cage-free operations that allow chickens more freedoms on farms. Photo by David Paul Morris/for The HSUS

  • Free-range/free-roaming and pasture-raised chickens are allowed time in the outdoors. Photo by Julie Busch Branaman/for The HSUS

  • A chicken and baby chick spend time outdoors. Like humans, bonds quickly form between the birds and their offspring. Photo by Linda Stweard/iStockphoto

  • The HSUS has helped postpone or end the suffering of thousands of chickens. Photo by George Clerk/iStockphoto

The vast number of terms on egg carton labels can leave grocery shoppers feeling dazed and confused. Some labels indicate that the eggs inside are “Natural”; others boast “Free Range” or even “Certified Organic.” But what savvy, animal-friendly consumers really want to know is whether their purchases promote higher welfare practices.

A guide to egg labels

Except for “certified organic,” the U.S. government does not set definitions or requirements for egg carton labels. Commercial producers provide laying hens with varying degrees of freedom and space—from less than a sheet of paper to more than 100 times that amount—to engage in natural behaviors.

Though multiple types of farms allow chickens outdoors, the duration or quality of that time varies. Pasture-raised chickens enjoy the most freedom and space, spending the majority of their days outdoors and sleeping inside at night for protection.

Most producers remove parts of hens’ beaks in the first few days of life. Some starve their birds to force molting (loss of feathers) to manipulate the laying cycle. And virtually all commercial operations are supplied by hatcheries that kill male chicks shortly after hatching (typically by grinding them alive), since they don't lay eggs and aren't bred to grow as large or as rapidly as chickens used in the meat industry.
 

Click the image to enlarge.

There are few regulations on what egg-laying hens eat. The exception is certified organic birds. Their feed is organic, vegetarian and free of pesticides and antibiotics, as required by the USDA’s National Organic Program.

A guide to animal welfare certification programs

In addition to the above terms, egg labels may claim participation in one of a number of certification programs.

Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Approved has the highest standards of any third-party auditing program. This program of the Animal Welfare Institute prohibits forced molting through starvation and beak cutting, as well as feed containing meat or animal byproducts. Flocks must contain fewer than 500 birds.

  • Each hen must have 1.8 square feet (259 square inches) of indoor floor space and must be able to nest, perch and dust-bathe
  • Birds must have continuous access to an outdoor area for ranging and foraging
  • The outdoor space must be covered by growing vegetation and must provide at least 4 square feet (576 square inches) of space per bird
  • Suppliers must follow requirements for stocking density, perching and nesting boxes
Certified Humane

Run by Humane Farm Animal Care, the Certified Humane program offers three levels of certification. All prohibit forced molting through starvation but allow beak cutting. Third-party auditing verifies compliance.

Regular (cage-free)

  • Birds are uncaged inside barns but may be kept indoors all the time
  • Birds must be able to nest, perch and dust-bathe
  • Suppliers must follow regulations for stocking density, perch numbers and nesting boxes

Free-range

  • Birds must have access to an outdoor area for at least six hours each day
  • Each hen must have at least 2 square feet (288 square inches) of outdoor space
  • The outdoor space doesn’t need to have any living vegetation

Pasture-raised

  • Birds must be placed on a pasture for at least six hours each day
  • Each hen must have at least 108 square feet (15,552 square inches) of pasture
  • The pasture must be covered mainly with living vegetation
American Humane Certified

American Humane Certified, a program of the American Humane Association, prohibits forced molting through starvation but allows beak cutting. Third-party auditing verifies compliance.

Enriched colony cages

  • Birds must have 0.8 square feet (116 square inches) in each individual “furnished cage”: smaller than a legal-sized sheet of paper. Scientific evidence demonstrates that these cages are detrimental to animal welfare.
  • Suppliers must follow some requirements for perching and nesting boxes

Cage-free

  • Birds are uncaged in barns but may be kept indoors all the time
  • Each hen must have 1.25 square feet (180 square inches) of floor space and access to perches and nesting boxes

Free-range

  • Each hen must have 21.8 square feet (3,139 square inches) of outdoor space
  • No minimum period of outdoor access is specified

Pasture

  • Each hen must have 108 square feet (15,552 square inches) of outdoor space on a pasture with a substantial cover of living vegetation
  • No minimum period of outdoor access is specified
Food Alliance Certified

The Food Alliance Certified program prohibits forced molting through starvation but allows beak cutting. No meat or animal byproducts are permitted in feed. Third-party auditing verifies compliance.

  • Birds are cage-free and must be provided with at least 1.23 square feet (117 square inches) of floor space apiece
  • Birds must have access to natural daylight or an outdoor area for at least eight hours per day
  • Outdoor spaces must have living vegetation
  • Birds must be able to nest, perch and dust-bathe
  • Suppliers must follow requirements for stocking density, perching and nesting boxes
United Egg Producers Certified

Most of the U.S. egg industry complies with United Egg Producers Certified, a voluntary program that permits inhumane practices. The certification prohibits forced molting through starvation but allows beak cutting. Third-party auditing verifies compliance.

Caged

Each hen has 0.46 square feet (67 square inches) of cage space: smaller than a sheet of paper. Restricting hens to these barren battery cages prevents them from perching, nesting, foraging and even spreading their wings.

Cage-free

  • Birds are uncaged inside barns but may be kept indoors at all times
  • Each hen must have at least 1 square foot (144 square inches) of floor space
  • Some perching and nesting requirements exist


  

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