Egg Labeling Cheat Sheet
Natural is a term often used when labeling food, but it has absolutely no regulated meaning in regard to eggs. The Department of Agriculture considers all eggs natural, no matter what the chickens were fed, where they live, or how they are treated. Avoid eggs that only use this label; they are just conventional eggs trying to seem more green.
Free Range is an unregulated label for eggs in the United States. Though free range birds are allowed access to the outside, no set amount of time or size of the available area is specified. Some animals may only have a door that is open for a small amount of time that none of the chickens ever use. Free range is a regulated label for chickens that will be sold as meat.
Pasture Raised hens range freely and eat grass, worms, and other things they can find outside. They may also be fed grain, corn, or soy in addition to what they find on their own. They are moved from one pasture to the next as the grass is eaten, so they are usually in small flocks. They will have coops to escape the weather, but they spend the majority of their time outside in the sun. This is another unregulated label.
Free Range and Pasture Raised are often used interchangeably. The best way to know exactly how the birds are being treated, what they are fed and so forth is to contact the farmer or egg brand directly that you are thinking of buying and ask them your questions. Each farmer or brand may have different policies.
Cage Free is another unregulated label that doesn't require third-party certification. It does not guarantee that the birds have access to the outdoors at all. Many cage free hens are raised in large barns and are not as crowded as their conventional counterparts that can be stacked on top of each other up to two stories high. Cage free hens may or may not have sun porches or barns that allow sunlight in.
The raised on a vegetarian diet label means that beef tallow or ground-up chicken parts and feathers have been eliminated from their diet. However, it does not guarantee food free of antibiotics or pesticides. This label is often in addition to an organic or cage free designation.
The No Antibiotics label is self explanatory. It is regulated by the USDA but still does not require third party verification. The farmer must have given sufficient documentation to USDA to prove that the animals were raised without antibiotics. Still, antibiotics are allowed in treating a real health issue or outbreak; they just cannot be included in their daily food.
The Organic label is one that we are most familiar with. The eggs cannot be produced using genetic engineering, sewage sludge, or ionizing radiation. (Yes, that's actually written in the USDA rules.) The bird's feed must be free of pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, animal products, and commercial fertilizers. In other words, it must be organic food grown by certified organic farmers. No irradiation and growth hormones can be used.
Remember that antibiotics are allowed in treating a real health issue or outbreak, but the hens will be tested before they are put back into production. The birds have access to the outdoors and can’t be continuously confined but can be confined at times. Organic chicken feed is around two times the cost of conventional chicken grain, so be sure to factor that in the price of organic eggs. It's one of the main reasons they cost more. You can check out the USDA organic program on their website and get more detailed information.
Personally, I rely on my favorite egg seller at the farmer's market. I've talked to him, know what he feeds his chickens, how they are treated, and I have visited where they live. I strongly believe finding a local farmer is the best way to get your eggs. Ask them about their farming practices, and visit the farm if it's at all possible. This way you truly know what is going into your food. You can look for a farmer in your area through the Eat Well Guide website. They also list the methods and feeds of many of the farmers on this site so it's a great source of information.