Egg Buying Guide: Carton Labels – What Do Terms Like ‘Organic’, ‘Cage Free’ and ‘Humane’ Really Mean?

Do you really understand what all the terms on the egg labels mean?There are so many confusing egg label terms out there such as ‘organic’ ‘free range’ ‘pasture raised’ ‘ cage free’ and ‘certified humane’ but what do they actually mean?

An egg can only be as healthy as the hen who laid it. Therefore, if the hen is not healthy, the egg will not be either, and as a result you will be eating an egg that has no benefit to your health, and is possibly even detrimental. So, what do chickens need?

  1. A clean, sheltered, warm and dry roost. There should be plenty of space, and lots of seperate nest boxes to avoid aggression due to overcrowding. There should also be properly sized perches, as chickens like to be elevated at night, and improperly sized perches can damage their feet.
  2. Fresh. clean water, and organic, nutritious and balanced feed. Artificial chemicals are detrimental to the bird, and thus the egg, which in turn means we ingest the chemicals when we eat the egg.
  3. A field or paddock to spend the day in. Chickens need to forage, preen and dust-bath themselves in a spacious environment. Chickens are not herbivores – they are omnivores, and like to hunt for beetles, grubs and worms.

Cheap Eggs

The egg label does not actually say ‘cheap eggs’. Cheap, supermarket eggs are sold under many different names, and may have a picture of a beautiful, healthy hen on the front, but the hens who laid these eggs where kept in terrible conditions. They are held in tiny wire cages smaller than an A4 sheet of paper – so small the hen cannot even stretch her wings. The hens are forced to remain in these tiny cages their whole life.

They are fed grain that is often genetically modified, and laced with artificial pesticides, herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers.

This is not a healthy living state, and thus the hens are not healthy. The method is quick and allows mass-production of eggs, but it is detrimental to the chicken’s health, and our own.

A hen may lay more than 250 eggs a year, and to produce this many eggs, she needs lots of calcium. In fact, she uses an astounding 30 times that found in her skeleton to produce the eggs. After a year of intensive production, she ¬†is so calcium depleted that her bones may shatter when handled. She is labeled as ‘useless’ and sent off to slaughter.

Certified Organic

Hens are not kept in cages, and must be fed organic feed, thus eliminating pesticides and fertilizers. She will also not have been pumped with antibiotics, and thus her eggs will be healthier.The living conditions still are not optimum, as nowhere in the ‘certified organic’ label is there any mention of pasture. Under the label of ‘organic’ hens are intended to have outdoor access, but this may be simply a tiny patch of concrete.

Free Range

Free range chickens have access to outdoor for over 50% of their lives, but the type of access is still undefined. Indoor conditions are also not specified, so hens can be packed in a dark, overcrowded environment.

Cage Free/ Free Run

This does not necessarily mean the hen is happily pecking about in a pasture, it just denotes the absence of battery cages. Hens can still be crammed in dark and overcrowded environments with no outdoor access.

Animal Welfare Approved

Debeaking, forced moulting and other cruel practices are not permitted. Indoor areas have no cages, and perches with dust bathing and bedding provided. Flocks are limited to 500 birds, and fed feed that is antibiotic and hormone-free. Medication is only allowed in cases of illness. Hens have outdoor access, with a minimum of 4 square feet per hen, and continuous access to foraging from 4 weeks of age (weather permitting).

Certified Humane

Similar to animal welfare approved, debeaking and forced moulting are not permitted. Perches and bedding and dust bathing is available, with at least 1.5 feet space per hen. Outdoor access is not required, however.

100% Vegetarian Feed

The chickens were fed on feed that contained no animal by-products. outdoor access, indoor conditions and the use of debeaking and forced moulting are not specified, nor is the use of antibiotics.


Here hens can express natural freedom, and as thye do not resort to aggression, there is no need to slice of their beaks. The term ‘pasture raised’ is not legally defined, however, farmers keeping pasture raised hens often feed herbicide and fertilizer free food. There is no third party certification or legal definition, therefore there is no way to validate the label.