Understanding Egg Carton Labels
Spring is here, so let’s talk eggs! I love eggs, but they are probably the one item on my grocery list that give me the most trouble. Anyone else feel this way?
For example, a dozen eggs may go on sale for 99¢. Great price! But I hate the thought of sick hens in cramped cages. I put them back on the shelf. Do I pay three times as much for the cage-free option? Or even more for the humanely raised eggs? What’s better: local eggs labeled as natural or eggs trucked in from Ohio labeled as organic? Omega-3? Vegetarian feed?
Ack! I barely resist the urge to crumple into a heap in front of the dairy case.
Something’s gotta give. Especially considering my family eats a respectable amount of eggs. I usually buy 2-3 dozen at a time, which lasts us 1-2 weeks.
When we run out of eggs, my husband hops on his bike and pedals one mile down the road to a neighbor with a flock of happy hens in the backyard and a sign advertising “Fresh Eggs” in the front. He comes home with a carton of eggs swinging from a bag on his handlebars. The eggs are beautiful, large and speckled with bright yellow yolks, but they cost almost twice as much as the grocery store and aren’t always available. Eggs are tricky like that.
So we bounce between the grocery store and the local coop, dreaming of the day when we will have some chickens of our very own. Until then, I am stuck decoding egg cartons.
Common Egg Carton Labels:
Cage-free: Just as the name implies, these hens are uncaged. Most are housed in large indoor barns and do not necessarily have access to the outdoors. Because of the large populations, these hens may also be given antibiotics to prevent infections and diseases from spreading, but they do have some space to walk and stretch. Beak cutting (to prevent hens from pecking each other) and starvation practices are allowed with this group; there is no third-party auditing.
Free-range/free-roaming: These egg-layers are also uncaged and generally get to hang out outside a bit more, although this is not guaranteed. Even though you’ll pay more for these eggs, the USDA has not imposed any set care standards. Feed is not regulated and beak cutting and forced molting are still allowed.
Certified organic: To be in this category, hens are required to be uncaged and have outside access. Their feed must be organic and all-vegetarian with no antibiotics, drugs, pesticides, or animal byproducts. Their living conditions are usually not as tight. This category is checked and certified by a third party, where the first two are not.
:: Certified Humane: These hens are uncaged inside large barns or warehouses. They are not required to have outdoor access, but they must be able to engage in natural behaviors like nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for population density and the number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.
Vegetarian-fed: As the name suggests, feed given these hens does not contain animal byproducts.
Natural: This pretty much just means no regulations.
Omega-3 enriched: Hens in this group are fed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids, usually by adding flax seed to the feed. The eggs typically have double the amount of omega-3’s as regular eggs, but at about twice the price.
Important Egg Carton Numbers:
Plant Number: This information is helpful in case of recall or other issues with your eggs.
Pack Date: This is the date the eggs were washed, weighed, and placed in the cartons. The 3-digit code (Julian date) corresponds to a day of the year (001 = January 1 through 365 = December 31)
Sell-By Date: In all USDA-inspected plants, the sell-by date may not exceed 30 days beyond the pack date. Assuming it has been refrigerated from the time of packing, eggs should be good for at least 2-3 weeks beyond their sell-by date.
- The Humane Society of the United States: Egg Carton Labels
- The Oregonian, FOODDAY, Sorting Out the Language on the Egg Carton
- What’s Cooking America: How Fresh Are Your Eggs?
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