Demystifying Egg Carton Claims

Article Published: Apr. 28, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 7, 2011

Every week, I am fortunate enough to have farm-fresh eggs delivered to my office. I once visited the layers to check out their living conditions. They were in a spacious chicken trailer that was rotated around a field, allowing them to eat grass and feed and to engage in "chicken like" behavior, such as nesting, perching, foraging and roosting. They seemed content, and I was glad to see they were well treated.

Watauga County Farmers' Market is opening on May 7, and local supply has increased over the past couple of years. If you don't have a local source for eggs and rely on the grocery store, labels on cartons can be confusing.

I will briefly describe claims found on eggs cartons that are verified by third-party audits:

Certified Organic: The birds are not in cages, but usually inside barns or warehouses. I was unable to find space requirements per bird. A door in the warehouse needs to be open to allow outdoor access. Birds are fed an organic, vegetarian diet, free of antibiotics and pesticides.

United Egg Producers Certified: Most of the U.S. egg industry complies with this voluntary program. The birds are in cages that allow 67 to 76 square inches of space per hen and should be able to stand upright. This is a very small space, about the size of a sheet of paper. The hens are confined in restrictive, barren cages and cannot perform many of their natural behaviors, including perching, nesting, foraging or even fully stretching their wings. However, the cages should be configured not to allow manure to drop down on lower hens. They receive adequate water and sufficient ventilation.

Feeder space allows them to eat at the same time, and feed should be nutritionally adequate. No regulations on antibiotics or pesticides are noted.

Certified Humane: Birds are not in cages, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors, such as nesting, perching and dust bathing. Hens may not have antibiotics in feed.

Free Farmed: The American Humane Association created Farm Animal Services to administer the Free Farmed label program in 2000. Egg-laying hens have access to clean water, food and the outdoors. Antibiotics may not be used for growth promotion.

Here are claims that you will see on cartons that are not checked or regulated:

No Additives or Additive Free: Color additives and preservatives are prohibited by the USDA in egg production, so this label doesn't mean much.

Cage-Free, Free Range (including free running or free roaming): Implies that the hens were not housed in cages, but doesn't mean that the hens were raised outdoors.

Natural: Implies that hens were raised as close to the way they would if raised by nature.
Hormone Free: The law requires that poultry farmers not use hormones, so this claim doesn't mean much.

Antibiotic Free: Implies that the hens were not administered any antibiotics. One of the most common claims on the label is that no antibiotics have been used.

A large community health concern is that antibiotic-resistant bacteria are on the rise. People once effectively treated for bacterial infections like pneumonia or ear infections may have to try several antibiotics before they find one that works.

We have overused antibiotics, causing bacterial strains to become more resistant. Overusing antibiotics in people is the largest problem, but some health professionals believe that routinely using antibiotics in agriculture plays a significant role in resistance.

Antibiotics may be added to some poultry feeds, although extension agent and poultry specialist Jody Smith claims that they are being used less and less because of consumer demand. A
ntibiotics have been added at low levels to prevent minor diseases and produce faster, more efficient growth. Farmers are moving toward using feed formulations with probiotics and enzymes to prevent illness.

Proponents of organic egg production claim that a vegetarian diet that is not genetically engineered and produced without pesticides is better for the bird and humans. The protein needs of chickens are satisfied with soy protein in a vegetarian diet.

The protein in conventional poultry feed may be supplied by meat and bone meal from livestock or fish. Smith claims that conventional poultry feed provides a healthy diet for a hen.

To summarize, 98 percent of us are relying on 2 percent or less to produce our food. Large production facilities are inevitable. If you don't have a reliable source for local eggs, why not pay attention to the meaning of claims on egg cartons to decide what is best?

This egg recipe is an excellent way to use leftover pizza. Kids love it!

Pizza Frittata

2-3 slices of leftover pizza
8 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup Italian cheese, or Parmesan
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
Non-stick spray or olive oil

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place a medium skillet that is oven-safe over low heat.

Spray with non-stick spray or lightly coat with olive oil. Add beaten eggs that are seasoned with salt and Italian seasoning.

While eggs are firming up, cut the pizza into small cubes, keeping an eye on the eggs and stirring occasionally.

Add the pizza cubes and stir.

Top with cheese and place in oven. Cook until the frittata is firm and golden, 20-30 minutes.
Cut like a pizza and serve.

Margie Mansure, M.S., R.D. is a registered dietitian/nutritionist and extension agent with N.C. Cooperative Extension in Watauga County. She offers personalized classes to improve the health of citizens in Watauga County through worksites and community groups. E-mail questions to or call (828) 264-3061.

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