Eggs are an American staple. They are cheap, nutritious, and ubiquitous. Any retailer that sells foodstuffs, from gargantuan supercenters to a corner bodega, a budget store to high end grocer, is sure to carry a wide variety of eggs. And for good reason. According to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), Americans consume ~300 eggs per person each calendar year, up from ~250 in 1991. (The highest per capita rate of egg consumption in the US was ~400, in 1945.)
Americans’ penchant for eggs and their increased interest in how food is sourced, have resulted in an egg marketing plethora. Manufacturers slap a dizzying array of labels on their egg cartons. To that end, have you ever been mystified, even overwhelmed by labels declaring a container of eggs you’re eyeing as “organic” or “omega-3 enriched” or “free-range, free-roaming or pasture-raised?” We certainly have. What about “cage-free or certified humane.” What does all this jargon mean? Is it just world salad, or truly meaningful when determining what kind of egg to use in a salad?
We decided to find out. But before we detail our findings, let us first introduce three other oddities of the egg industry that directly affects egg aficionados everywhere: Size, Ratings, and Color.
The USDA ascribes six different weight classes per dozen shelled eggs. From smallest to largest they are peewee, small, medium, large, extra-large, and jumbo.
Peewee: 15 oz. These eggs come from younger hens who lay eggs intermittently. They are almost impossible to find in grocery stores.
Small: 18 oz. Small eggs are also known as “pullet eggs.” Like Peewees, they are not readily available in most stores.
Medium: 21 oz. The smallest eggs consumers can find at most supermarkets.
Large: 24 oz. The most common egg. Most cooking recipes assume the chef will be using large eggs.
Extra-large: 27 oz. Sometimes baking recipes specifically call for extra-large eggs.
Jumbo eggs: 30 oz. The largest eggs available for public consumption. They are not available in all markets but are easier to find than peewees and small eggs.
All eggs sold for human consumption in America are graded by the USDA on a 3-point scale from B (lowest) to AA.
Grade B: These eggs are safe for human consumption but rarely offered for sale to the general public. They are often misshapen and have other suboptimal qualities. Typically, these eggs are sold in frozen, dried, or liquid form.
Grade A: Sold in most grocery stores, these eggs must have intact shells, be of “normal” shape, and be essentially free of any visual defects.
Grade AA: The highest grade assigned by the USDA. These eggs must have clean intact shells, normal shape, and be free of defects.
Eggshell color is derived from the breed of the hen. We will refrain from discussing the granularity of different hen breeds – we do not want to bore our readers to death. Just know this, typically, white eggs come from hens with white feathers and brown eggs – yep, you guessed it – come from hens with brown feathers. More importantly, all else equal, the nutritional value of white eggs and brown eggs is identical.
Finally, what we have all been waiting for. The wild, (mostly) unregulated world of labels in the egg industry. What do they all mean? Are they truthful, misleading, or somewhere in between? Below is information on the following commonly used marketing designations: Organic, Omega-3 Enriched, Free-Range, Cage-Free, Pasture-Raised, Animal Welfare Approved (AWA), Certified Humane.
Organic: A container of eggs affixed with this label guarantees the egg-producing hens were not raised in cages or fed anything containing animal byproducts or unnatural fertilizers. However, “organic” does not preclude the hens from being given antibiotics. Bear in mind, growth hormones are forbidden in the U.S. poultry industry; the use of antibiotics is not. Finally, the organic label does not guarantee that hens were raised in humane conditions just because they were not raised in cages.
Omega-3 Enriched: This label ensures these egg-producing hens were fed a diet rich in Omega-3’s. A body of evidence suggests Omega-3’s can help lower the risk of heart disease. Hence, some people believe eating eggs high in Omega 3 can help lower the risk of heart disease. Maybe. But eggs naturally contain lots of cholesterol and fat, two known contributors to cardiac issues.
Free-range or free-roaming: This designation means the hens were allowed to roam outside and forage for insects or plants, in addition to their normal feed. This label could be misleading. The quality of, and the time allotted to outdoor roaming space, is unknown.
Cage-free: Let us start with what this label does not mean. Cage-free does not equate to outdoor etc. It simply means the hens are not penned in and have access to food and water at their discretion. Some cage-free barns are humane and comfortable; others are horrific. Indeed, just because a hen does not live in a cage does not mean the barn it resides in is not overcrowded and filthy; they can be.
Pasture-raised: These hens forage for their own natural food as their primary food source (instead of commercial feed). These hens’ eggs typically contain higher levels of omega 3’s and antioxidants.
Animal welfare approved (AWA): The gold standard. AWA certified eggs only come from hens that live happy, free, and eat natural foods on family farms.
Certified humane: A notch below AWA but above all the rest. Eggs certified by the not-for-profit Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) come from hens that live unconfined on egg farms inspected by the HFAC annually. Hens on these farms have unlimited access to natural food and water and benefit from more human contact.
Whichever type of egg tickles your fancy, be prepared to pay more per carton. While still a relatively cheap source of quality nutrients, “the wholesale cost for a dozen eggs reached $2.50 on April 13, rising 92.3% from March’s figures and 160.3% from the prior year, according to Food Institute analysis of USDA data.”
The primary reason for egg inflation is simply because of rising prices everywhere. However, another reason that eggs are becoming dearer is because American consumers are demanding eggs from hens raised on family farms. Raising hens on smaller farms in their natural environment is more expensive than on large commercial farms in cages. Ironically, if this consumer trend continues, family farms that an increasing number of discerning customers want their eggs from, will be forced to sell to big agricultural firms that can better absorb rising costs, that shoppers increasingly shun.