How To Understand Egg Labelling

how to understand egg labelling

How much do you really know about the quality of the eggs you feed your dog? Let’s look at how to understand egg labelling and what to watch for.

But first, let’s look at the perfect scenario of how you’d raise a chicken.

How You Should Raise Chickens

Let’s say you have a flock of 2 or 3 dozen chickens. You’d provide a secure coop for them where they could take shelter. This is also where you’d have perches and nesting boxes for them. The coop would have a grassy area surrounding it. You might have fencing to keep your chickens from wandering too far. But you could easily reposition the fencing every week or 2 to allow the grassy areas to regrow.

The grassy area is where your chickens would spend most of their days in the sun. They’d pick at their feed and root around for worms and grubs. Because let’s be clear … chickens aren’t vegetarian. They get their protein from crawling critters they find in the dirt. At night you’d secure them in the coop to protect them from predators. 

Chickens lay about an egg a day so you’d be collecting a few dozen a week in prime laying months. You may even put a sign at the end of your driveway saying “Eggs For Sale” so you could sell your extras to passers-by. And you’d probably call them “Eggs from Pasture-Raised Chickens.” You could also feed them organically certified feed … then you could add “organically fed and GMO-free” to the sign. And you’d be totally honest and transparent in your labelling.

This is the best way to buy eggs … directly from the farmer!

Now let’s look at how the business world raises them.

The Reality Of Egg Production

Realistically, most chicken and egg producers don’t raise their chickens the way you would. But they want you to think they do. Here are some differences between their egg production and yours.

Let’s start with 2 cruel yet common practices that take place in the chicken industry. Beak-cutting or debeaking is one. Processors clip the beaks of day-old chicks. This prevents chickens from attacking each other when living shoulder to shoulder with thousands of other birds. And then they can’t peck or break eggs either.

The other is forced molting. It’s the practice of starving a young chicken into more frequent laying cycles. A producer can expect to get two years out of its laying hens before they are “spent.” Then they’re euthanized and rendered and used for pet food. If they’re directed to the human food chain, they’re used in soups, stocks or stews. Some are just composted.

More to the point — ALL producers can take part in these two practices. You’d expect it of factory farming producers. But no one is exempt from using these practices to encourage growth and egg production. And most egg producers destroy their male chicks. They won’t be layers so they’re immediately disposed of and turned into feed or dog food.

Chicken producers play as many deceptive labelling games as their counterparts in the commercial pet food world. These labels refer to those used on egg cartons but most apply to chickens raised for meat as well. Here’s what you’ll see … and what the labels actually mean.

RELATED: Ingredient splitting in the pet food industry…

Meaningless Marketing Terms Used On Chicken Products

Let’s start by eliminating some labelling terms used purely for marketing …. 

  • Vegetarian-fed
  • Natural and All-Natural
  • Farm fresh
  • Fertile
  • Hormone-Free
  • Antibiotic-Free
  • Omega-3 Fortified

They mean nothing and follow no regulations. They’re smoke and mirrors to distract you from inhumane practices. These claims only have any truth to them if there’s a certification on the label, verified by third-party auditors. Otherwise, producers have done nothing in their day-to-day operations to achieve these descriptions. And they have no bearing on the quality of the meat or eggs.

If you’re sourcing humanely raised chickens and eggs for you and your dog, you’ll want to be aware of these tricks. Voluntary certification programs offer a better quality of life for the chickens. But first, let’s look at how to read between the lines of chicken and egg labelling.

Labels To Watch Out For And What They Mean

Knowing how to understand egg labelling is important. Many labelling terms want you to believe chickens are happily pecking away in the sunshine. But that isn’t always the case. So here’s what you’ll see on the label — and what it really means.

How Old Are Your Eggs?

Let’s start with a quick way to decipher the age of your carton of eggs. There should be a 3-digit code mixed in there among the best before and sell by dates. These 3 numbers represent the Julian date. They count off the numerical days in the year from 001 to 365 which is December 31. 

The number of the carton is the day the manufacturer packaged the egg. Not the day they collected, washed or graded them. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows eggs to be sold up to 30 days after they were packaged. There’s also a letter that represents the plant where they originated. 

So a carton label of P346 is December 12. If today’s date is January 9, your eggs have been in the carton for 28 days. The date laid could be several weeks before that. That’s 7 weeks old. And the best before date of January 11 isn’t about when you eat the eggs. It’s so stores know how long they have to sell the eggs to you. Now you’ve got eggs that are 9 weeks old. Eggs are considered safe to use for another 3 weeks after the sell by or best before date. That takes your eggs to 12 weeks. 

RELATED: Can dogs eat raw eggs?

Caged

As the word implies, hens live in cages. These are conventional operations, which are about 98% of the egg producers in the US.

What It Really Means

These are factory farms in every sense of the word. Of course, no label is going to boast these chickens are “conventionally raised.” But you can assume any other labelling, like the marketing terms listed above, are being used to hide this fact. 

These chickens are often debeaked so they don’t peck at each other when crammed tightly together. And they’re starved into more frequent laying cycles. These chickens never go outside.

Many producers have flocks of 10,000 to 100,000 or more birds in warehouses. They’re raised in battery cages that house 4-10 birds each. Often they’re stacked several tiers high. They have 65-85 square inches of space each. Picture this. The span of an average-sized hand, pinky to thumb, is 7-8 inches. So 8×8 is 64 square inches and that’s the amount of space most chickens live in. Less than a sheet of paper. They can’t perch or nest or spread their wings.

With all those chickens, tight quarters and no access to the outdoors, there are massive amounts of chicken droppings. If there’s poor ventilation and improper cleaning and maintenance, ammonia gas forms as the droppings decompose. It causes respiratory damage to the birds, affects growth and egg production. Producers destroy sick chickens and send them to the pet food makers. Ammonia is a hazardous chemical as defined by most safety organizations.

In 2020, 6 US states banned the use of these cages. But the producers have several years to implement changes. And most countries raising chickens still use them. And here’s why: each hen lays about 300 eggs each per year. It’s more profitable to squeeze in as many as possible to squeeze out that many eggs. 

Cage-Free

The USDA requires these “hens to be housed in a building, room or enclosure that allows for unlimited access to food and water and provides the freedom to roam the area during the laying cycle.” Birds can walk and spread their wings. By 2026, the USDA is mandating that 66% of US hens be cage-free.

What It Really Means

This is still factory farming. And cage-free doesn’t mean cruelty-free. Chickens are still de-beaked and starved into more frequent laying cycles.

And there’s no space requirement per bird. With 100,000 or more birds in cages or 100,000 birds on the ground, it’s still crowded. There’s no stipulation about the size of the flock either. It can be 1,000 or 500,000. These are often multi-level aviaries. It allows producers to house more chickens in the same square footage … like a chicken hi-rise. They have lower air quality and usually more hen-on-hen violence because of the close living conditions.

It’s disappointing to learn your cage-free eggs aren’t coming from chickens that have been hunting and pecking worms in green pastures. Cage-free chickens have never seen the outside world. They’re not required by the USDA to have access to the outdoors. And the USDA doesn’t conduct inspections to monitor these very loose requirements.

Free-Range

Chickens must have unlimited access to food and water. Plus continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. There could be nests and perches for the birds.

What It Really Means

The USDA has defined the term “free-range” only for chicken meat. It doesn’t apply to eggs or other livestock like cattle. Seeing “free-range” on your egg carton is meaningless. The eggs could come from hens from anywhere – including caged operations. And they can still call them “free-range.” The only way you’ll know for certain is if they’re labelled “free-range” along with a third-party certification. You’ll learn about that a bit later. 

You might expect to see a farmyard filled with foraging chickens … but you’d have to look long and hard. You may never see a bird outside at one of these operations. What you will see is row after row of warehouses housing the chickens. The USDA requires that they “have continuous access to the outdoors.”   

There’s no requirement that they actually go outside. And there’s no minimum amount of time birds should spend outdoors. Or the amount of space each bird has inside or outside. There is no stipulation about the size of the flock. It can be 100 or 100,000 or more birds. And inspections are not required. 

Vegetarian

The standard feed for chickens is wheat, soy and corn.

What It Really Means

Producers might believe labelling chickens as vegetarian is a positive thing to appeal to buyers. But as noted earlier, chickens aren’t vegetarian. Like dogs, chickens are omnivores and eat plant and animal matter. They forage for worms, bugs, grubs and larvae … when they can actually go outside. But if they’ve been de-beaked, as most have, they can’t hunt and peck for worms anyway. So when the label says vegetarian it’s because that’s the diet fed to them.  

What’s worse is what passes for their diet. Here’s an ingredient label from a popular commercial chicken feed: ground corn, dehulled soybean meal, rice bran, wheat middlings, dried bakery product, hydrolyzed poultry feathers, whole pressed safflower meal, salt… Basically it’s waste from manufacturing. Plus they add a list of synthetic vitamins, minerals and amino acids to provide the actual nutrients.  

RELATED: Why I stopped feeding chicken…

Natural

It can mean there was nothing added to the egg like flavoring, brine or color.

What It Really Means

Natural has become the most over-used and misrepresented word in the commercial food manufacturing business. When you see it on labels, it’s known as greenwashing. It’s the practice of marketing products as natural or organic when they’re not. They don’t have to meet any requirements to use this term. It’s another meaningless marketing word. Feed chickens the most toxic diet on the planet, keep them in a dark box their entire lives and drive them 1,000 miles to market. And label the products “natural.”

Hormone-Free

They’d better be. The USDA banned the use of hormones in poultry in the 1950s. (Beef is a different story. Producers use hormones.) 

What It Really Means

Saying chicken is hormone-free is like saying broccoli is gluten-free — or an apple is cholesterol-free. It wasn’t there to begin with. If the label says “no hormones added” this statement is a requirement: “US federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Antibiotic-Free

This isn’t really a thing with chickens. Chickens aren’t treated with antibiotics. If they’re sick, it’s easier to destroy them. Then they go into the pet food stream and end up in kibble for your dog.

What It Really Means

There are only 3 FDA-approved antibiotics. Plus if used, they would require veterinary supervision. If a conventional egg producer chooses to use antibiotics, he foregoes the antibiotic-free label on his eggs. (Even though there are no regulations for such labelling.) They are usually used only in cases of outbreaks that might affect the whole flock. Management practices and vaccination should minimize illness. 

Omega-3 Enriched

The diet of these hens can include things like flaxseed and algae and fish oils. The intention is to boost omega-3 content from 30mg to 100-200mg per egg.

What It Really Means

Nice try … but adding flax and fish oil is 100% marketing. You don’t know how much of those supplements are being added to feed. Or the quality of the supplements. Or if they’re added uniformly to the feed of the whole flock. They can skew the test results. They do this by testing eggs again and again to document their goal of 100-200mg per egg goal.

And still, the fact remains, these birds eat a highly inflammatory diet of GMO grains that will boost their Omega-6 fatty acids. And that ends up creating inflammation in your dog who eats eggs and meat from these birds.

Vitamin Enhanced

These hens eat a diet that may include things like alfalfa, rice bran and sea kelp. The goal is to produce eggs with more vitamins B, A, D and E.

What It Really Means

Like the hens eating omega-3 supplements, the quality of these add-ins is in doubt. Alfalfa and rice bran are both GMO products. And the highly inflammatory diet of GMO grains remains. Three strikes for this dirty trick.

Local

This means your eggs came from a flock within the same state or less than 400 miles from the processing plant if it’s out of state.

What It Really Means

You can raise chickens in a large state like California and truck them 700 miles away. As long as they remain in that state, they are “local.”

No GMOs

Chicken labelled “Non GMO Project Verified” means feed contained less than 0.9% of genetically modified crops. This well-respected label needs verification. 

What It Really Means

The Non-GMO Project is an independent nonprofit organization. Participants voluntarily submit their products to meet rigorous requirements and receive non-GMO verification. Ongoing auditing programs ensure compliance. 

USDA Certified Organic

This is a biggie and one of the very few labels that carries meaning. USDA Organic is the only USDA certification that must adhere to regulations. And producers undergo an annual inspection. They need to maintain 100% compliance.

Here’s what the USDA says:

 “USDA Certified organic foods are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”

Hens eat an organic diet of feed produced without conventional pesticides or fertilizers. Production of organic feed follows USDA regulations for planting, growing, raising and handling. The USDA Organic label is also verification that genetic engineering or GMOs were not used or fed to animals.

Processing of chickens and eggs takes place in an inspected facility without artificial colors, preservatives or flavors. Packaging avoids contact with any prohibited, non-organic substances.

RELATED: Why your dog is probably eating GMO food…

What It Really Means

The USDA does not claim that organically produced food is healthier, safer or more nutritious than conventionally produced food.

The regulations are clear about food and feed quality. And they do require organic birds to be free-range. However, there is no USDA requirement for indoor space, duration of time outdoors or minimum space per bird. “Housing must provide access to the outdoors, shade, shelter, exercise areas, fresh air and direct sunlight year round. Housing must also provide adequate protection from predators.” 

In fairness, many organic chicken operations do engage in free-range or pasturing practices. But debeaking and forced moulting  still takes place on organic egg farms. 

RELATED: Organic pet food and deceptive labels…

Pasture-Raised

These chickens have adequate indoor space. Plus they have regular access to a large, grassy outdoor space. Often the yolks of these eggs are more orange, said to reflect the hen’s healthy diet.

What It Really Means

This is the highest form of unregulated labelling. It’s as close to being an honest label on your chicken and eggs as you may see. It really does refer to happy chickens foraging in the green grass and sunlight. Chickens that are happy and healthy. Producers can take it a step further and let you know they offer more humane treatment of their chickens. They can take part in a voluntary certification. And add that stamp on their “pasture-raised” label. You’ll learn about these voluntary certifications next.

But beware. Unless there’s a separate certification, pasture-raised is a practice not regulated by the FDA. That means “pasture-raised” can be hijacked and used by anyone for greenwashing  — just as “natural” has been abused. 

Pasture-raised eggs can be nutritionally better than commercial eggs in these ways:

  • One-third less cholesterol
  • One-quarter less saturated fat
  • Two-thirds more vitamin A
  • Twice as many omega-3 fatty acids
  • Three times as much vitamin E
  • Seven times as much beta carotene

While optional, the following certifications have greater value than the “cage-free, free-range, natural” labelling that is pure marketing.

Voluntary Certification You Can Trust

The following animal welfare certifications receive verification by third-party auditors. So look for these labels to be sure your chickens are humanely raised.

1. Animal Welfare Approved

Animal Welfare Institute implements this. It applies to flocks of less than 500 birds. Prohibits debeaking and forced molting. It also prohibits feed containing meat or meat byproducts. It also stipulates the following:

  • Each bird has 2 sq ft of indoor floor space to nest, perch and dust bathe.
  • Birds must have CONSTANT access to the outdoors.
  • There should be growing vegetation providing each bird with 4 sq ft of space
  • Producers must maintain stocking density, perching and nesting boxes.
  • Natural light is a requirement (no minimum given).
  • Annual audit is a requirement along with 100% compliance.
  • Maximum transport time is 4 hours.

2. Certified Humane

This has 3 levels of certification. It’s run by Humane Farm Animal Care. It prohibits debeaking and forced molting at all levels. Maximum duration in transport is 10 hours. An annual audit is a requirement along with 100% compliance.

Regular (Cage-Free)

  • Birds remain indoors but are not caged.
  • Birds are able to nest, perch and dust-bathe.
  • Producers must maintain stocking density, perching and nesting boxes

Free-Range

  • Birds can access outside for at least 6 hours a day.
  • Each bird has 2 sq ft. of outdoor space.
  • Outdoor area isn’t required to have vegetation.

Pasture-Raised

  • Birds must roam on a pasture for at least 6 hours per day.
  • Each bird has 108 sq ft of pasture.
  • Vegetation covers the pasture.

3. American Humane Certified

This comes under the American Humane Association. It prohibits debeaking and forced molting at all levels. Maximum transport time is 12 hours. Annual audit is a requirement but only at 85% compliance. 

Enriched Colony Cages

  • Birds have .8 sq ft in a cage. It’s smaller than a legal sized sheet of paper. Scientific evidence shows it’s not harmful to animal welfare.
  • Producers must provide perching and nesting boxes.

Cage-Free

  • Birds are not in cages but kept indoors.
  • Each bird has 1.25 sq ft of floor space plus access to perches and nesting boxes.

Free-Range

  • Each hen has 21.8 sq ft of outdoor space.
  • Outdoor access is a requirement but the minimum duration is not noted.

Pasture

  • Each bird has 108 sq ft of outdoor space with plenty of vegetation.
  • There is no specified period of outdoor access.

4. Food Alliance Certified

This program prohibits starvation to force molting but allows debeaking. It prohibits feed containing meat or meat byproducts.

  • Birds are cage-free with 1.23 sq ft of indoor space each.
  • Birds must be able to access daylight or outdoors for at least 8 hours a day.
  • Living vegetation must be in the outdoor area.
  • Producers must maintain stocking density, perching and nesting boxes.

5. United Egg Producers Certified

This certification program restricts the birds the most. And most US egg producers fall under this voluntary program. It prohibits inhumane practices. But it doesn’t exactly promote freedom or allow the birds much movement. This program prohibits starvation to force molting but allows debeaking. There is no restriction on the number of birds in a barn. They could number 100,000 or more. That leads to plenty of bacteria and poor air quality. Temper that with poor food and GMO grains and it’s easy to see how chicken became a very inflammatory food for your dog.

Caged

  • Each bird has .46 sq ft of space. That’s smaller than a sheet of paper.
  • This prevents them from perching, nesting, foraging or spreading their wings.

Cage-Free

  • Birds are not in cages but inside.
  • Each hen has 1 sq ft of space.
  • Some perching and nesting exists.

Know Your Farmer And You’ll Avoid Label Reading

My eggs come from a farmers’ market. Or I drive right up to the farm. I encourage you to take a break from the city. Go for a drive through the countryside and look for farms with fresh eggs. If it’s got acres of barns, keep going. It’s pretty certain that’s a conventional operation. If it looks like the farmhouse from The Waltons with pastures and animals in view, you’ll be in luck. They’ll usually have a simple sign stating “Eggs For Sale.” That’s all the marketing and labelling you need. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.

I often visit my “egg lady” right at the farm. On one visit I grabbed 3 cartons from the egg hut. I checked them to see that they were all intact but one egg was missing. My egg lady dashed over to the henhouse and returned with an egg — still warm — and dropped it into the carton. Now that’s fresh. And that’s why I like knowing my farmer.

The Best Eggs For Dogs

If you don’t have a trusted farmer for your eggs, here’s the best option.

You want to find labels that state: Certified Humane or Animal Welfare Approved + Pasture Raised + USDA Organic. This means the hen that laid your eggs had 108 sq.ft. of outdoor space as well as plenty of room inside. It ate an organic, GMO-free diet and was able to seek out worms and larvae in the many hours a day it spent outside. It’s as close as possible to the idyllic scenario of how you’d raise your own chickens. 

Now that you know how to understand egg labelling, read beyond the label.

There are only four ways to be certain of the quality of your eggs. 

  1. USDA Certified Organic 
  2. Non-GMO Project Verified
  3. Third party certification
  4. Know your farmer

Otherwise, it’s the honor system when reading labels … and that means egg buyer beware.

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