All those new varieties of eggs in the local supermarket have all the information you need listed right on the label, right? Well, that depends. Here’s an abbreviated guide to some of the more common label claims straight from the supermarket egg case:
“Cage Free,” “Free Range” or “Free Roaming.” According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the terms “Free Range” and “Free Roaming” simply mean those hens have “been allowed access to the outside.” “Free Range” usually means the hens are raised in big flocks in large open warehouses as opposed to stacked cages. They can roam around, flap their wings and preen their feathers. Because outdoor access is not clearly defined, it is probably extremely limited, and their time outdoors, if any, is likely on dirt or concrete rather than on grass or pasture. “Cage Free” does not mean outdoor access.
“Certified Humane.” A certification program operated by Humane Farm Animal Care specifies that laying hens are uncaged and have access to perches, nest boxes and dust-bathing areas. Outdoor access is not required and there are stocking-density maximums. Beak trimming (but not debeaking) is also allowed; starvation to induce molting is strictly prohibited.
“Certified Organic.” Production processes must obey the USDA National Organic Program, which includes organic, vegetarian feed, no antibiotics and no cages. Debeaking and forced molting by starvation are allowed. Organic standards require producers to “maintain livestock living conditions which accommodate the health and natural behavior of the animals.” It is still being debated how much access to the outdoors is required. On some large organic chicken farms, it may only mean that a small door opening onto a concrete yard exists.
“Omega 3.” All eggs contain small amounts of omega-3 fatty acids beneficial to human health. Omega-3 levels in eggs can be raised in many ways, such as supplementing the birds’ diet with fish oil, alfalfa meal or flax seed, or by allowing the birds to naturally forage on lawn or pasture.
To learn more about finding healthy, delicious eggs and raising chickens of your own, read "How Do Your Eggs Stack Up?" at Mother Earth News.