Eggs: Know Your Label Lingo
How to buy eggs, when your choices involve not only size but grade, color, conventional or organic, and animal-treatment issues? Here, a guide to cracking the code, with information from the United Stated Department of Agriculture and the Humane Society of the U.S.
Size: Eggs are sold by total weight per dozen, not the size of individual eggs, which may vary in size within a single dozen. Here’s what it means:
Size Minimum Weight Per Dozen
Jumbo 30 ounces
Extra Large 27 ounces
Large 24 ounces
Medium 21 ounces
Small 18 ounces
Grade: The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grade is determined by the interior quality of the egg and the appearance and condition of the eggshell. Eggs of any quality grade may differ in weight (size).
U.S. Grade AA eggs have whites that are thick and firm; yolks that are high, round, and practically free from defects; and clean, unbroken shells. Grade AA and Grade A eggs are best for frying and poaching where appearance is important. U.S. Grade A eggs have characteristics of Grade AA eggs except that the whites are “reasonably” firm. This is the quality most often sold in stores.
Color: A hen’s breed determines its egg color: White hens usually lay white eggs, and hens with darker feathers lay brown eggs. But there’s no difference in flavor.
USDA Certified Organic eggs come from hens that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones (see Hormone-free, below), and are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet, also free of antibiotics. The birds are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, and are required to have outdoor access (although the enforcement of that requirement has been lax).
Hormone-free or “No Hormones Added”: Because the USDA categorically bans the use of hormones in poultry, all eggs are free of hormones, whether they are organic or conventional.
CONCERNED ABOUT ANIMAL WELFARE?
Cage free: Hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but they generally don’t have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. This also means that they will peck one another, so beak cutting is still permitted.
If the label does NOT say “cage-free”: Most egg-laying hens in the U.S. are confined in battery cages, with about 67 square inches of cage space, for their whole lives. In these extremely confining quarters, they can’t spread their wings, nor practice many of their natural behaviors such as nesting and perching.
Free-range: When it comes to chickens raised for meat, there are USDA “free-range” standards, but not for egg production. In most cases, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have access to the outdoors, but there are no requirements for the duration or quality of that access. Hens can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. This designation has nothing to do with the animals’ feed. Beak cutting and forced molting (which increases egg production) are still permitted.
Certified Humane: A program through the nonprofit Humane Farm Animal Care, this certification requires that the hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses, but may be kept indoors at all times. They must be able to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and dust bathing. There are requirements for stocking density and number of perches and nesting boxes. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.
Got the eggs you want? Now try these Easy Egg Recipes: