Cracking the Code: Egg Essentials


Are you uneasy in the egg aisle?
You’re not alone.
Egg cartons are plastered with stamps and seals and jargon-filled labeling: authority over egg-production standards is shared by a web of federal agencies; compliance is monitored by the states; and a slew of trade, health, and animal welfare associations chime in with their own certifications. Free range versus cage free, natural or organic: we find ourselves paying a premium—as much as 100% over the price of conventionally-produced eggs— for distinctions that can be opaque.

Egg Size

Eggs are sorted into sizes according to weight with the largest, Jumbo, weighing in at a minimum of 30 0z. per dozen eggs, and the smallest (seldom seen in supermarkets), the Pee Wee, at a miniumum weight of 15 oz. per dozen.


Eggs are classified by grade according to the integrity of the shell and the quality of the interior. The highest grade of egg, AA, appears smooth, even, and ovoid. Inside, the regularly-formed yolk is well-centered in a clear, firm white. At the bottom of the scale, a Grade C egg may be abnormally shaped and colored, the white is loose and watery, possibly spotted with blood clots, and the yolk can be off-center and malformed. You seldom find eggs below Grade A at the retail level.


Vegetarian-fed chickens are given a diet that does not contain animal by-products. While there is negligible nutritional difference, the appeal of a vegetarian diet is mostly due to the unsavory nature of conventional chicken feed which can contain beef tallow, chicken feathers, pork processing remains, and the euphemistically-titled “spent hen meal,” which is the ground-up remains of dead chickens. Bear in mind that a vegetarian-fed label also tells you that the hens were kept indoors, since a free-ranging chicken will naturally dig for worms and insects.

Hormone-free is not only meaningless (the FDA banned hormone use in poultry in 1959) but deliberately misleading, with its suggestion that there are egg producers out there who are dosing their birds with hormones.
Antibiotic-free is also devoid of meaning. The term is not defined or regulated for conventional producers. Only organic eggs are verified as free of antibiotics.

Omega-3 enriched eggs have had their levels of this healthy fatty acid boosted by the addition of ground flaxseed, algae, or fish oil to the birds’ feed. Alternatively, omega-3 levels can be raised through a hen’s steady diet of foraging bugs and greens.

The Organic label covers a lot of ground. The birds are fed a vegetarian diet that is supplemented by foraging. The grain used in organic feed is produced without pesticides, herbicides, sewage sludge, fungicides, fertilizers, irradiation, or genetic modification. No antibiotics or hormones are added.


Most of the carton claims pertaining to the treatment of chickens are not regulated by the federal government. Instead, the oversight, if any, is provided by third party certifiers like trade groups and animal welfare agencies. The labeling is a bit of a free-for-all with a patchwork of standards and definitions that are inconsistent, unverifiable, and even deceptive. The exception is the USDA Certified Organic program which has established humane treatment standards in addition to feed and diet standards.

The uncertified, unaudited Cage Free designation refers to indoor confinement of the birds with no guarantee of density low enough for any movement. Free Range adds outside access to the cage free standards. Another unregulated designation, the reality is usually more prison yard than barnyard, with very limited access to very unnatural space. Pasture Raised hens live outdoors in mobile hen houses with enough outdoor access to derive 20% of their diet from greens and bugs. Again, nobody’s really checking.

Miscellaneous Labeling

The natural designation is one of the more egregious abuses of the labeling standards. The term is used to describe eggs with no additives and minimal processing. As a wholly unprocessed food, the term can accurately describe every egg.
eggs have been treated with heat to eliminate salmonella bacteria and other pathogens and make them safe to eat raw or undercooked.
Fertile eggs come from hens that are raised in barns that also house roosters. The storage conditions prevent chicks from developing.

Food Alliance Certified/ Animal Welfare Approved/American Humane Certified/United Egg Producers Certified/Certified Humane Raised and Handled: Some or all of these designations can be found on egg cartons in various regions around the country. Each has its own standards proscribing animal treatment and agricultural concerns.

It seems to me that egg cartons are already overloaded with information. But if there could possibly be a need for more, the USDA has prepared fact sheets that are brimming with detail on all aspects of egg production and handling.

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5 Responses to Cracking the Code: Egg Essentials

  1. John says:

    The United Egg Producers is a discredited trade organization with a sordid history of consumer fraud and animal cruelty. The “UEP Certified” program allows hens to be confined in cages that provide each animal less space than a sheet of paper to spend her life. More at

  2. Larisa Mar says:

    y todo lo mejor

  3. Thanks for giving this awesome article. Check out my very own!

  4. Amber says:

    Great information. In addition, eggs in the US are rinsed before sale. This removes the outer coating and because of this they must be refrigerated. In other countries, such as New Zealand, where I am right now, they do not rinse their eggs and leave them unrefrigerated. These eggs contain more bacteria on the shell which can lead to salmonella poisoning if one is not extremely careful in preparation. No cracking eggs on the side of the bowl or letting them touch any food that won’t be cooked well.

  5. Paul says:

    The United Egg Producers is a discredited trade organization with a sordid history of consumer fraud and animal cruelty. The “UEP Certified” program allows hens to be confined in cages that provide each animal less space than a sheet of paper to spend her entire life.

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