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Deciphering Egg and Poultry Labels

If you are still buying eggs and poultry from the grocery store, you will see a variety of terms regarding the type of eggs and meat you’ll be buying – “organic”, “free-range”, or “cage-free”. You should know that most of these are just marketing terms that are there to sell the product.

There are a dizzying variety of eggs in the store, and with the recent egg and other food recalls, the consumer eye is becoming more watchful and discerning – as well it should.

I can tell because at the health food store where I shop, now nearly every time I go to the egg section, all of the local and pasture-raised eggs are usually sold out. And what’s left are cartons and cartons of eggs from large producers. These producers raise chickens in ways you’d really rather they didn’t. Especially if you knew the details.

What’s the big deal?

It’s not just for taste you should be aware of the differences between conventional eggs and poultry – problems with conventional food on the market are becoming more and more acute every day, and eating these foods, claimed by many from politicians to government officials to come from “the safest food system in the world”, can actually be hazardous to your health. And yet, if our food system is so safe, why do we continue to have these issues? Clearly this is a way to protect the interests of a multi-billion dollar industry by leaders in agribusiness, government, and politics as well as cover-up of how faulty practices which are now becoming apparent to the consumer are failing – and losing the confidence of many.

The same can be said for poultry too. There are many, many brands of chicken (and turkey, for that matter) in the store and you have to be really careful about what you buy and what you believe from the label description.

In the American markets (and many other developed countries), poultry birds live in industrial housing and facilities that don’t allow for much in the way of natural behavior or existence. What’s more, many of them eat dangerous chemicals and toxic feed – genetically- modified soy, grain, corn, silage, meat parts, etc. So that means that the majority of eggs and poultry you will buy are not worth the money you spend and would invariably fall into this category.

Even a “designer” carton of eggs that costs $4 or $5 a carton labeled organic is probably not what you think it is. Maybe you can’t believe anyone could possibly spend that much on a container of eggs like this and instead you’ve been buying eggs at the local grocery chain store that cost only $1.89 a dozen, and you believe this to be a real bargain.  But the truth is, neither variety of eggs is a good choice.

How could that possibly be the case? The main factor in a healthy egg is not how expensive it is, the fact that the eggs or brown, or that the label reads “free-range” or “organic”.

Here are the ways to tell what label terms mean and how you know if you are getting an egg or chicken meat that is worth the money you are paying for it:


This label only refers to the feed source of the chicken – free from harmful chemicals. It also means that no pesticides are used on the premises nor antibiotics are administered to the birds. But it is no guarantee of a life free of industrial hen-housing. The term “organic” does not describe how they are raised or whether they have access to pasture. Many organic chickens and turkeys consume feed that can translate to poor nutrition in the meat and eggs – soy, grain, and corn. This type of feed causes the product you are eating from the bird to have too many Omega 6s, and leads to inflammation and disease in the body.


Many people imagine chicken eating grains as a bulk of their diet – and they can and do eat grains in nature, but not a large amount. Chickens and turkeys need nutrients from protein when eating grubs, worms, insects, and other creatures, as well as plants like grass and fresh seeds – which they can only get out in the open and by having access to pasture or grass.

“Vegetarian-fed” usually means the majority of what chickens eat is grain, corn, soy, and other things like flaxseed – which is mistakenly believed to impart the elusive Omega 3 so many people are lacking in their diets, but actually doesn’t translate the same way as a diet on pasture would. The things that provide Omega 3s in the diet of chickens are being out in the sunshine, digging in the dirt, and eating the things nature intended.


A fantastic marketing label, but totally meaningless. Chickens may be cage-free, but the term implies they are also free to roam. The dismal reality is that are likely confined to a chicken house which barely ever sees the natural light of day, and fails to provide natural soil, grass, and plants for chickens to eat. At best, these chickens might have temporary (maybe only as long as 1 hour daily) access to an outside fenced area on cement or bare dirt. Sorry Charlie, this gets a failing grade.


Another slick marketing term that gives you the idea the chickens are roaming around, free and happy. Like many others, this term has been used over and over again by store employees – so much so that you will hear many an uninformed consumer using it as well – but due to no fault of their own.

Many of these chickens have so-called “access” to outdoor areas (again, bare dirt or cement), but there’s no guarantee they actually make it there. This term is the most commonly mistaken of all terms to mean “on pasture”. But it doesn’t mean that in the slightest. The legal requirement for these terms is merely that the chickens have a small patch of dirt or concrete, much like “cage-free”.

Here is a list of feed ingredients in a caged hen’s diet, from Mother Earth News:

(Feed ingredients list from “16 percent Layer Crumbles,” a feed designed for hens raised in confinement: “Grain Products, Plant Protein Products, Processed Grain Byproducts, Roughage Products, Forage Products [in other words, could contain pretty much anything! — Mother], Vitamin A Supplement, Vitamin D3 Supplement, Vitamin E Supplement, Vitamin B12 Supplement, Riboflavin Supplement, Niacin Supplement, Calcium Pantothenate, Choline Chloride, Folic Acid, Manadione Sodium Bisulfite Complex, Methionine Supplement, Calcium Carbonate, Salt, Manganous Oxide, Ferrous Sulfate, Copper Chloride, Zinc Oxide, Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide, Sodium Selenite.”


There are three types of pastured poultry:

  • Those kept in movable, floor-less “tractors” with perpetual access to grass. The tractors should be moved daily to give the chickens rotation and opportunity to new ground without built-up chicken excrement.
  • Free access to green pastures with movable electric fences to keep predators away.
  • A fence-less pastured area, which is best for the chickens. The farmer must keep a more watchful eye on the chickens this way, as they would be vulnerable to predators and mishaps.

Another important consideration is what type of birds your eggs and meat are coming from. If you talk to the farmer, you’ll want to make sure the chickens are some type of heritage or heirloom breed. The cornish-game cross so ubiquitous in the American market have been bred and bred over time such that their constitution and health has become compromised. They are more susceptible to health issues and disease. Also, many of the heritage breeds are becoming more rare, and supporting farmers who raise these types of birds will go a long way toward preserving these varieties.

Read this great article about the farming of older, heritage breeds of poultry and the advantages over conventional – The Chicken or The Egg? A Closer Look at Rogue Valley Brambles

You can tell by the color: when you bring your eggs home and crack one open, there should be a bright orange yolk greeting you inside the shell – much like the one in this picture to the right.

The yolk will be a brilliant color because of all the wonderful nutrients from chickens raised outside on pasture, in the sunshine, and open air. Conventional eggs will be pale and quite dull in color, by comparison.

Where can I find pastured poultry and eggs?

The two best places to find eggs and poultry from pastured chickens is at your local farmer’s market or direct from the farmer. At our local health food store, they also sell a constant offering of at least three or four local eggs from chickens on pasture. If you are in doubt, ask the farmer or the store employee about the farming practices. Don’t be shy. These people are usually helpful and accustomed to being asked questions about the food they sell.  And, your health depends on it!

Eggs are nutritious!

Even at $4 a dozen for local, pastured eggs, this is a bargain price. The reason is because spending that $1.89 for the other variety is getting you really not much nutrition at all, and is probably adding in some toxic substance that could be harmful to your health such as antibiotics, pesticides, or genetically-modified substances from the feed they eat. Those eggs are also higher in Omega 6s which leads to inflammation and illness in the body – as opposed to the rich source of Omega 3s available in eggs from hens on pasture without antibiotics and chemicals.

Chickens on pasture also have Vitamins A, B, D, E, and K in their meat and eggs – the same cannot be said for factory farmed and conventional eggs and poultry meat. Eggs from pastured hens are a rich source of choline, a nutrient essential in maintenance of cardiovascular and nervous system function. Various studies have been conducted on the nutritional value of an egg from pastured as compared to conventional, but one in particular stands out is the Egg Project undertaken by Mother Earth News in 2007.

(Source: Pathways to Family Wellness,  Issue #27, Jeanne Ohm, DC.)

More information on eggs and food recalls:

The egg recall and why local isn’t necessarily better

Food recalls – why they could mean the end of real food as we know it

This post is part of Food Renegade’s Fight Back Fridays Carnival.

68 replies on “Deciphering Egg and Poultry Labels”

When buying pastured eggs from a farmer you know where the eggs come from. As I’ve become more and more aware of food and labeling, I’ve noticed that generic brands – everything including eggs, milk, and meat all say “Distributed by” instead of where the food actually came from.

Kristin – hello and thanks for visiting! I checked out your blog, very nice! Yes, when you buy from your farmer you can learn all about what’s done to your eggs or other foods before it comes to your table. That’s why it’s absolutely critical to get the word out about these issues, because so many people just go along, unaware of just how dangerous it is to buy grocery store eggs, meats, etc. and how little nutrition they are actually getting for the money spent. It’s always been true, you get what you pay for. If you spend little on nutrition, you won’t get much in return except that your body will still be hungry, and you’ll have the added detriment to adding chemicals, antibiotics, hormones, and other harmful substances in.

Outstanding! Raine, you have explained every one of those deceptive and misleading terms, and shown why pastured is the only way to go.

This post should be required reading for everybody who buys eggs or poultry.

Gorgeous yolk, one of the best I have ever seen.

Honestly, I’ve never cared for eggs or dairy and have disliked milk ever since I was a young child. But I thought “organic” was a protected term and had to be approved organic by the USDA before any company could claim its product “organic”?
Its absurd though what lengths Big Ag will go to manipulate and confuse people so they’ll buy their junk products.

Kelli C.

Kelli – If you are not a fan of eggs or milk, I’d be willing to bet that you’ve never tried real, raw milk from healthy cows on pasture or real eggs from happy hens on pasture. I could be wrong and perhaps you are one of those rare people who just simply doesn’t like those foods, but if all you have ever eaten is factory-farmed varieties, there is absolutely no comparison. And I truly believe some people just don’t get what the difference is – and that is okay as long as you understand that there IS indeed a difference and then at least make an effort to try it. Otherwise, you really can’t make a fair statement about it.

As far as the term organic goes, many people and companies use it. Yes, if it is not certified by the USDA the guarantee of it not being organic is not there. Many people also claim to use what they call “organic practices” which is also pretty meaningless. I have heard various food growers use this term and then come to find out they are actually not using those practices such as that they are using pesticides, etc. So don’t be fooled by someone who tells you he or she is using “organic practices”, because often that is actually not the case.

Big Ag will do whatever it takes to make a profit, plain and simple. They are not concerned with health or environmental issues, no matter how the case is made or the argument swung.

Thanks for your comments and I hope you’ll give real raw milk and real eggs a try. 🙂

As a producer myself of pastured livestock, I find this article a bit vague. The author seems to have a great understanding as a nutritionist and may be less knowledgeable of the production process. For instance, to claim or sell your products as ‘organic’ requires a significant investment to get your farm certified organic by government officials, etc. When you buy any “organic” product, part of what you are paying for is the cost of that very expensive certification process. Most small producers I know can not afford to purchase this deceptive “marketing” method as the author describes so the majority of producers claims are of the “pastured” category. I would agree with the author about the phrase “cage-free”, that is a joke and should be followed up with “No thanks, see ya later!” The author may be referring to those less than honest and truthful people\companies (BigAg) of the world that will say anything to raise there prices to compete with a superior product.

I could go on but feel it more appropriate to close with this. Every consumer should go to the farm and see for yourself how they are raised. If you don’t like milk its probably because you’ve never had milk that isn’t watered down such as 2% (2% milk 98% water) or worse yet skim. Here is a simple test for eggs. Fact is, you can only bake white cakes with store bought (factory raised) eggs. Try baking a white cake with a pasture raised egg. It can’t be done! If your white cake is yellow after mixing the eggs in you know you have access to grass fed, protein rich eggs. If the cake is still white after mixing the eggs, the producer is stretching the truth about their products. We had one customer bake two cakes that turned yellow until running to the store for eggs so they could have a white cake for an upcoming event that required a white cake.

Talk to the producer and make up your mind based on what you learn and what you see. Then you’ll know what your buying.

Hello Jeff – I am sorry this article seems vague to you. I always encourage people to visit the farm and get to know their farmer. I don’t merely go by labeling, but intend to inform people that labeling claims are usually just marketing terms and are meaningless unless there is some knowledge behind the practices of the farmer raising the food. Even if a product has the certified organic label gracing its packaging, the food may still be less than quality because it could come from an “organic” feedlot and be fed grain, soy, or corn. And that is one of the main points I made in this article. True, many producers cannot afford the certified organic label, I’m well aware that this certification process is lengthy and takes some time, effort, and money to achieve. But I must impress that simply because those producers cannot afford certified organic does not automatically mean they are of the “pastured” variety. Simply because a label says “pasture-raised” doesn’t mean there isn’t any grain, corn, soy, or other substance feeding going on. The point of the article is to get people thinking about where their food comes from, investigate labels, and get to know the farmer, and I think I accomplished that here.

How do you feel about buying organic eggs from the store that are produced fairly close by and the yolks are always yellow/orange? These days I’ve been basing the quality of the egg mostly on the yolk color… Once I bought “soy free” eggs (yay) but the yolks were digsutingly pale yellow! I’ve been trying to find a good egg source here in SoCal that doesn’t cost 7 dollars a dozen.

Megan – Actually, I am having a detailed conversation on FB with 7 other people about this very topic right now. I can tell you that feeding soy has nothing to do with how yellow the eggs are. The eggs get yellow because chickens are outside eating some of the grasses and plants that are exposed to sunshine, which transfers beta-carotene into the chickens who lay the eggs (hence the yellow color). I was just talking to a producer this morning who does use soy in her eggs and the yolks are bright yellow in color. Some of the most yellow I’ve ever seen. It’s true that producers balk at paying more for organic or non-GMO feed, but the end cost is harming people’s health since it causes the food product to be lower quality. I think the point of paying more should be that if you are going to do so, the food product you are buying should actually be pasture-raised and not fed corn or soy. But you don’t necessarily have to pay $7/dozen for that type of egg. It probably all depends on where you live.

What a shame that you paint all egg companies with the same negative brush. Everything you have stated about Organic, cage-free, and Omega-3 eggs is not true of all egg producers. Take companies like Farmers Hen House and Organic Valley, who do, in fact, practice what they preach with all of these things.

Also, as a nutritionist who has done research on eggs, I’d like to note that your information about Omega-3s in eggs from flax seeds is incorrect. It does, in fact, impart plenty of Omega-3s into the eggs, in a nutritionally available form. The source of Omega-3 for the bird has nothing to do with whether or not it can be digested from their eggs.

Please do better research the next time you write a sensationalist, misleading article.

Here in SF the good eggs are now around $9/doz. When people find out I pay that, they freak out; “That’s 3 times as much as I pay!”
That’s still only 75 cents per egg. I mean, how many eggs do you even eat a week? A dozen at most? Spend the extra $6 a week. You will be putting food of an infinitely higher quality into your body. You will be supporting farmers who engage in thoughtful and sustainable practices. And you will get to eat eggs that taste AMAZING.
Sounds like a win(x3) to me.

Joshua – In our family we use about 3 dozen per week (there are 3 of us), but we eat a lot of eggs because they are nutritional powerhouses and pack a lot of nutrients. I agree, eggs don’t cost that much in comparison to some foods (such as meat), and we have had an artificial sense of what food should cost because of the industrial food system which has cheap food that doesn’t contain anything worthwhile nutritionally, but is packed full of chemicals and toxins. I’d certainly pay $9/dozen if it meant I’d get good pastured eggs from hens raised without soy.

We pay $4.75 here for those kind of eggs, and I hear people complaining and saying it’s too much to spend. Personally, I’d rather spend more on my food and have better health down the road that doesn’t require expensive intervention (that might not even work). Yes, a win-win, and they taste amazing. I’m all about that. 🙂

We have our small flock of chickens that are pastured and fed wild bird food so they get a variety of grains. The yokes are really different from grocery eggs in that they are a really nice dark gold color not a weak yellow. Last winter we were running out of eggs so I bought a carton of 18 from Sam’s that said free range brown eggs. I thought yea it sounds good anyway. Those has yokes that were vary close in color to our hand raised chickens. Is there some trickery that can be pulled to get this color or were these really pasture raised birds?

[…] Eggs are likely from feedlot hens which are administered antibiotics and aren’t granted access to the outdoors or sunshine as they should. On the Best Foods web site, it now says they are committed to using certified cage-free eggs, but this term is misleading and many “cage-free” or even “free-range” chickens are still in confinement most of their lives. For more information, read Deciphering egg and poultry labels. […]

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