(Guidelines for purchasing “organic,” “cage-free,” “free range,” “all natural” eggs)
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Most of the eggs we consume do not come from hens roaming freely around a barnyard but from confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), in which thousands of chickens may be kept inside a single henhouse, in cages stacked several rows high. The resulting layers of accumulated manure generate high levels of air pollutants such as ammonia that can affect the health of farm workers and local residents.
Various claims found on egg packaging imply that a particular suppliers eggs are produced under more humane or environmentally safe conditions, but this may or may not be true. Heres what you should know when you see such claims in the grocery store.
Labels Backed by Independent Certification
Only one label in the marketplace establishes government-backed standards that are verified by independent, accredited certifiers:
- Certified organic. Eggs that are certified organic by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) were laid by hens raised according to stringent standards. For example, they must be fed with 100 percent organic feed that cannot contain animal by-products, and cannot be fed or treated with antibiotics. (Sick animals must be treated but then diverted from the organic food stream). Organic standards also require that hens have access to the outdoors, but do not currently guarantee that the chickens actually went outside.
Egg producers are accountable to the USDA for the truth of claims on their labels, but the claims can be confusing and are not independently verified.
- Free-range and free-roam. Although these terms suggest that the laying hens spend their days outside, many chickens marketed this way only have the opportunity to go outdoors but do not actually do so.
- Cage-free. This claim generally means that chickens are uncaged inside henhouses. There is no requirement that they have access to the outdoors.
- Natural. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), this claim means only that products are minimally processed and contain no artificial ingredients. Most fresh animal products meet these criteria regardless of how they are produced. Some producers have used the term natural to refer to how their animals are raised, but the producers are the only ones accountable for the truth of such claims.
- Pasture-raised. Chickens cannot survive on a grass-based diet alone, but supplementing grain-based feed with pasture grazing reduces the air and water pollution associated with CAFOs and produces eggs with a higher level of certain fats that may be beneficial for human health. Though the USDA recently approved a government-backed label for grass-fed beef (which will appear in stores later this year), it has not established such a label for poultry, dairy, eggs, or other animal products.