With so many different labels and terms used to describe eggs--cage-free, organic, free range, etc.--it can be hard to figure out which carton to buy at the grocery store. Here’s a breakdown of what those labels actually mean.
The most important thing to note about a free-range label is that this term means very little. If you’re picturing a field of chickens freely wandering around, this is often very far from the life of a “free-range” chicken. There are no regulations on the amount of time or the quality of access to the outdoors the chickens are given.
If you’ve seen Super Size Me 2, Morgan Spurlock exposes just how little this label means. In raising a massive barn full of chickens, all it took to get the free range label was opening a door at one end, and adding on about 2 feet of fenced in space--technically outside--for the chickens to spend time in if they chose. Don’t be fooled by this label. It doesn’t mean much.
This is the most meaningful label applied to eggs because it’s the only one that regulates what the chickens are fed. Organically raised chickens cannot be fed antibiotics, and must be fed organic, vegetarian food. The USDA organic label is the only official label backed by federal regulations. These are the best eggs to buy in the store.
Cage-free raised chickens are simply not kept in cages. This doesn’t mean that they have access to the outdoors, nor does it mean that they’re given space--they could be packed in a shed with no outdoor access. This label also applies no regulation to the type of food fed to the chickens, though it does stipulate constant access to food and water.
Chickens are not necessarily given access to the outdoors, but they are not kept in cages and there are restrictions on the density of chickens per square foot in the space they’re kept. There are also regulations to ensure chickens can perform “natural behaviors.”
A carton of eggs with this label as well as the organic label are the best you can buy. Chickens raised under animal welfare approved standards are free to spend unlimited time on pesticide-free pasture. They also cannot have their beaks cut, something allowed under every other poultry raising regulation. These eggs are rarely found in grocery stores, but you’re more likely to find them in specialty or health food stores or at a farmer’s market.
There are several natural replacements for eggs to use in baking for people who choose a vegan diet. The most common is a ground up mixture of either flaxseeds or chia seeds with water.
Stay away from all eggs labelled natural, naturally raised, no hormones, or no antibiotics unless you can verify that the label is accurate. These terms are completely unregulated and can be used without any way to substantiate the claim.