Egg Carton Labels: What to Know

You’re likely confused about egg carton labels…

If you spend way too much time standing in front of the egg aisle in the grocery store trying to figure out which carton to choose, you’re likely confused about what the labels all mean. Don’t worry, it’s daunting even for the most experienced egg buyers. Cage free eggs seem to be on the rise in terms of consumer choice, but other terms often get in the way of understanding what that label means.

For instance, hens raised organically can go outdoors and eat organic feed, while cage-free hens don’t get either. They do get vegetarian feed, and neither group is given antibiotics, says Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. What about all the other labels: free range, certified organic, certified humane, and natural? The differences can all be very small but nonetheless important if you’re concerned about the welfare of egg-laying hens.

From the size of a sheet of paper to 100 times that, farmers and commercial egg producers have free range for the most part when it comes to the treatment of their hens. Knowing the difference as a consumer can help you choose the best tasting and healthiest options for you.

If you take a look at the Certified Humane program run by the Humane Farm Animal Care, you’ll see there are a few main levels of certification. They include:

Cage free

  • Birds are uncaged within barns but cannot go outside.
  • They must have the ability to nest, perch and bath in the dust (a natural behavior).
  • There are rules regarding regulations for stocking density, perch numbers and nesting boxes.

Free Range

  • Birds must be able to get outdoors for a minimum of six hours per day.
  • Each hen needs at least 2 square feet of space outside.
  • This outdoor space is not required to include living vegetation.


  • Hens need at least six hours within a pasture per day.
  • Each bird needs at least 108 square feet of pasture.
  • This pasture must have living vegetation.


  • Organic chickens are only fed organic feed and are not given additives, growth hormones, animal byproducts or GMOs.
  • The USDA is required to inspect the farms before a label of “organic” is can be used on the eggs.

All farms are different, with each one allowing varying types of access to the outdoors. The only hens that aren’t allowed outside are cage free. The rest, from free range to pasture-raised, are granted access to the outdoors. This doesn’t mean the chickens will take advantage. In fact, most tend to stay inside because they don’t feel protected from predators outside unless trees provide shade right outside the henhouse.

If you have a local farm near you, drop by and see what kinds of eggs they offer and how their chickens are raised. If you don’t, you’ll need to trust the guidelines set forth by the USDA on the egg cartons at your local grocery store.

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