I often stand staring blankly at the choice of eggs at my local grocery co-op. There are so many different classifications and labels to decipher, it’s difficult to understand what they all mean exactly, and how to weigh the various pro’s and con’s of how they’re produced. Should I buy the brown, organic eggs? The multi-colored free range eggs (but they’re not organic!)? Or maybe the locally produced, farm fresh eggs (not organic, and they’re all white!)?

I always end up buying a different brand each and every time I go, cycling through the selection in the hopes of balancing out the negative aspects of each dozen with the positive aspects of another. Irrational, really.

So! I’ve taken it upon myself to breakdown exactly what each label means. Hopefully I’ll be able to make up my mind next time I’m at the store!

Conventional Eggs

Most eggs that are conventional don’t actually label their eggs as “conventional” – it doesn’t have the same ring to it as “organic” or “free range” does. That’s because conventional eggs are, for the most part, a terrible way to raise laying hens.

Conventionally produced eggs are what you typically think of when you envision an egg facility. There are rows and rows of cages stacked up high. These are called “battery cages” and are used in a majority of the conventional egg laying facilities. These provide about a filing cabinet drawer’s worth of space for 10 chickens. Chickens in this type of setting must be fed chicken feed laced with antibiotics to combat the disease that would inevitably spread quickly in otherwise cramped conditions. Chickens raised in this environment are also more likely to have much weaker bone structure from a lack of movement. As these chickens are not allowed to perform their natural functions – like flapping their wings, perching, digging for grubs, etc. – they often suffer from extreme boredom and frustration. These chickens are also de-beaked typically when they are chicks, so they do not peck their neighbors to death.

In conclusion – steer clear of these eggs whenever possible.

Cage Free Eggs

Eggs that are labeled as “Cage Free” are, clearly, not raised in cages. There are several advantages to this.  One, is that they have the freedom of movement to jump around, perch, flap their wings, and socialize in a more natural way. They are given nesting boxes where they can lay their eggs in privacy (very important for their mental health). They are typically healthier birds, with better bones and energy levels.

That said, there are many drawbacks, still. Often, these cage-free houses have flocks in the thousands, where it can be difficult to properly manage them and deal with all the waste properly. Chickens are still de-beaked in this system, as well, to minimize the amount of harm they can do to each other (a clear indication that they are not well mentally). Also, most live their entire lives indoors and never get to see the light of day.

Free Range Eggs

Even if you see a carton of eggs labeled as free range, this does not necessarily mean that they are, in fact, free range. Chances are they’re not. The term “free range” is not regulated by the USDA – nor any other agency for that matter – so producers are allowed to use it freely. In other countries, this is not the case, such as the UK.

The Laying Hens Directive(Europe’s regulatory agency) has a list of qualifications that must be met in order to use the free range label. Laying hens have constant access to the outdoors. This outdoor space should be covered in mostly vegetation, where the chickens are allowed to eat greens and dig for grubs. There should be one nest for every seven hens. Indoors, they should have at least 4 square feet for every 9 hens (even that’s pretty tight, though). Outdoors, there should be 10 square feet per hen.

So, in the UK you can be assured that your eggs are coming from a better source. In the US, though, we’re not so lucky.

Organic Eggs

Organic eggs must be certified by the USDA or a third party certifier. Organic certifiers are quite rigorous in their certification techniques, so you can be pretty sure that your eggs will have been produced up to their standard. Laying hens must not be kept in cages and have access to the outdoors at any time. “Forced molting” is also not allowed (used by other types of egg producers to make their chickens molt, whereby they do not feed them for an extended period of time). Organic producers can also not use any sort of antibiotics on their hens, with the sole exception of an outbreak of some sort.  Their feed must also be certified organic – no synthetics sprays are allowed in their feed.

Which Eggs To Buy?

If you’re at all concerned with animal welfare and the quality of egg you buy, you’ll want to make sure the eggs you’re buying are organic. You might want to consider taking this a step further and ensuring that they’re also labeled “free range” or “cage free”, although, again, this means very little. Some organic egg producers have very small exposed areas which constitute as “outdoors”, but is completely unsuitable for the number of chickens that they have.

Also, in general, the smaller the producer, and the closer it is to you, the better. If you can, check out their website and see their operation (increasingly common), you can be more sure that your eggs are coming from a reputable, healthy source.

Better yet, get your own hens! It’s easier than you’d think!