Take a gander at the egg case at your local grocery and you are likely to find a variety of labels that go far beyond medium, large, extra-large or jumbo.
Cage-free, pasture-raised, vegetarian-fed, free-range, humanely raised, organic — the variety and combination of descriptors can be confusing — and cost you more at checkout.
So what’s a consumer to do?
Casey Ritz and Prafulla Regmi, experts in the Department of Poultry Science at the University of Georgia’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, agree that information is the best tool in selecting the eggs that are right for you.
What does it all mean?
Regmi, an assistant professor who specializes in poultry welfare programs and research, explained that food labels influence consumers’ purchasing behavior, but the definitions for some labels aren’t regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“Welfare-related labels on eggs or meat are confusing, or in some cases outright misleading. Claims such as ‘humanely raised’ do not provide any information on how birds are reared because there are no standard metrics to define what ‘humanely raised’ means,” he said.
Most of the certifications for certain labels comes from private, third-party auditing organizations — such as certifiedhumane.org or the Global Animal Partnership— which have developed their own standards for humane farm animal care.
Other producers follow the standards set by the respective commodity councils for each product, such as the United Egg Producers and the National Chicken Council.
“These third-party auditors follow their own guidelines and, most of the time, their audit protocols are more expansive than those set by the National Chicken Council or the United Egg Producers,” Regmi said. “The extent to which these protocols differ is quite broad.”
“When a label says cage-free, that does not necessarily mean that those birds are raised in a pasture-style system. They may still be raised indoors, but have access to common floor scratch areas,” Ritz added.
For labels like antibiotic- or hormone-free, the definitions can be mildly misleading.
“Even in certain cases when antibiotics are used to treat infections in chickens, they have to go through a withdrawal period during which the producer is not allowed to sell eggs or meat from those animals,” Regmi said. “The biggest concerns among consumers are antibiotics or added growth hormones. Exogenous growth hormones are not used in poultry industry at all because there is no need. We have birds that naturally produce the intended amounts of eggs and meat based on genetic potential and what nutrition and environment we give them.”
While it is valuable to consumers to have an idea of where their food comes from and how it is produced, some labeling boils down to industrywide marketing strategies.
“Some of these labels are meant to drive profit by tapping into consumers’ perceptions and driving demand, but perception does not necessarily mean you have informed knowledge,” Regmi said.
Some labels, like those for organic products, are federally regulated by the National Organic Program, while other labels are not regulated.
“USDA certified organic labeling has specific guidelines to it, while other labeling is not always verified, regulated or enforced in any way,” said Casey Ritz, a professor of poultry science and poultry expert for UGA Cooperative Extension. “These labels are following the guidelines of a third-party independent program and may not have the same standards from one program to the next.”
Inside your egg
As for egg connoisseurs who claim the ability to distinguish an organic (or pasture-raised or vegetarian-fed) egg from a-run-of-the-mill store brand egg, there are many ways to influence how an egg looks.
“Generally speaking, a chicken puts out an egg based on what it eats. You may see a darker yolk color if a chicken is going out and eating certain grass and worms that can enrich xanthophylls (pigment that changes yolk color) in eggs. If you feed chickens pigmented flowers or other pigmented products, they will also make eggs yolks appear dark yellow or orange,” Regmi said.
And what about the egg brands that boast increased vitamin content or Omega-3 fatty acids in their eggs? Yes, there are slight differences in the vitamin and fatty acid profiles of those eggs, but the difference is minimal. Labels such as organic, free-range, heritage or cage-free have no impact on egg nutrition.
“Birds that are fed Omega-3 enriched diets may produce eggs with a small elevation in those fatty acid levels. Fat-soluble vitamins such as A and E can also be boosted a little bit in eggs from chickens that have exposure to greens and grasses or if the company adds increased levels of fat-soluble vitamins to their feed, but the increase within the egg is still small,” Ritz explained.
How birds are housed has no effect on the nutritional value of eggs.
“If you look at birds raised with the same diets in different housing systems and compare the nutritional value of those eggs, it will be the same. Just compare the label on each carton and you will see the same nutrient profile. The husbandry system itself does not change the nutritional value of the egg,” Ritz said.
Conversely, for chickens who are raised and lay their eggs in outdoor or pastured systems, there may be a greater chance of contaminants on egg shells due to exposure to soil pathogens and microbes present in the natural environment.
“Most of the eggs in the United States are washed and treated before they go to the grocery store, so there is less risk of getting contaminants in them in any way,” Regmi said.
Marketing and perception are important factors in influencing consumer choice, Ritz said.
“What consumers think they want and what they are willing to pay for can be two different things,” he said. “When faced with a price of $6 a dozen or $2 a dozen, it comes down to how much you are willing to pay for a dozen eggs.”