A common question! Especially considering the ridiculous amount of labels to consider when it comes to buying eggs.
Before I dig into each one with you, I encourage you to read last week's post on the pros and cons of relying on food labels. It is very important to understand the limitations of food certification labels, and when the best times to rely on them is.
So let's dissect egg labels with a couple rules of thumb:
1. Certified Humane® Pasture Raised is ideal
The general "Pasture Raised" label (without the Certified Humane® stamp) is not a regulated claim, so anyone can slap it on their egg carton for marketing purposes. However the third party Certified Humane has established that for them to label something as Pasture Raised means, "1000 birds per 2.5 acres (108 sq. ft. per bird) and the fields must be rotated." Read more here. This rotating is important so that the chickens can scrounge for grub in different parts of the farm. If the farm rotates cows with chickens following behind, the chicken can also pull grub out of the cow pies and help stamp the manure into the earth, helping with soil restoration. This will also produce the happiest, healthiest chickens and thus the happiest, healthiest eggs.
2. I don't want to eat pesticides or chickens that ate them.
The Organic label is especially useful in conjunction with the Certified Humane® Pasture Raised. If you find eggs with both these designations, you're likely getting really good eggs and they will likely cost 5-6 x the cheapest eggs at the store. The reason for this is that these eggs are so nutritionally superior, they can hardly be considered the same food. Read an in depth article on this topic here. If the chickens are exposed to toxins, their eggs will have more toxins, so I like to look for Organic whenever I can.
3. Chickens are not vegetarians
Often eggs will be labeled "vegetarian fed", meaning that they were fed only grains and seeds, and not raised on outdoor land where they could dig up bugs. The problem with this is that chickens are made to eat bugs - it's what they want and it's what their digestive systems are meant to process. Similarly, cows are ruminants - meaning they have rumens for stomachs, which are meant to digest grass. If we would stop feeding cows grain while keeping them from eating grass, and allow chicken to eat bugs, these animals would be healthier, happier, and so would those of us who eat their byproducts. To summarize, pass on the "vegetarian fed" eggs.
4. Pasture Raised chickens don't need extra Omega 3
"Omega 3 fortified" or any variation stating that eggs have extra Omega 3 is just not necessary if you are eating pasture raised eggs and a diet that includes seafood. The chickens are fed flax seeds, which are high in Omega 3, to provide this classification. This is not a bad dietary supplement for chickens, and often chickens are fed additional seeds or grain even when they are pastured. But if you eat seafood a couple times a week, and avoid processed foods, you probably don't need these extra Omega 3s in your eggs and don't need to look for this label specifically.
5. Cage Free and Free Range don't mean much
Unfortunately, these USDA regulated labels have become so distorted that they hardly mean anything. The images we often conjure in our heads of Cage Free and Free Range are really what is best represented by Certified Humane® Pasture Raised or by buying directly from a farmer you know. Cage Free simply means that the chickens don't live in individual cages - but often they are still packed tightly into henhouses with no access to the outdoors. Free Range means Cage Free plus the addition of "access to the outdoors", which can mean a tiny door that is shut most of the time and would never allow the quantity of chickens in a henhouse to reasonably get outside. Read more about these two labels here.
In summary, when buying eggs - the more you know about the farmer the better. I have often googled the name of a farm at the grocery store to look for some of the above indicators on their website. It's not a fool-proof system, but if I'm not buying directly from someone I know I'm looking for Organic, Certified Humane® Pasture Raised, and a quick smell test via Google.
Then after that, I do the best I can in every situation and don't worry about if it's perfect. If you read this whole article, you care a lot about the type of food you buy. Do your best, and give yourself grace when it's not perfect.