Be a Good Egg,
Choose Better Eggs

Animal Welfare Institute

Have you ever seen words like “cage free,” “free range,” or “pasture raised” on an egg carton and wondered what it meant for hens? Find out why pasture-raised eggs are the better choice in this video from the Animal Welfare Institute.

FAQs About Hen Housing and Egg Labels

If an egg carton label doesn’t include any of these claims, then it is very likely the hens were housed in small cages.

The amount of space given to hens raised under different housing systems is determined by the individual egg company or egg certification program. There are no federal laws addressing minimum space allowances for hens; however, several states have set legal standards. The amount of space provided to hens varies greatly, but in general, cage-free hens have slightly more space than caged hens, while free-range hens have more space than cage-free hens, and pasture-raised hens have the most.

Beak trimming is performed, without pain relief, on nearly all laying hens housed indoors and even on some hens who are allowed to go outside. It is performed primarily to decrease pecking of flock mates and prevent cannibalism. The procedure involves using a hot blade to cut off part of the beak or using high intensity infrared light to damage beak tissue, causing it to die and slough off. Typically, one-third to two-thirds of the beak is removed. Both acute and chronic pain are associated with this inhumane practice.

Hens can live 8–10 years and lay eggs between the ages of 4–8 months and 3–4 years. After around 2 years, however, the number of eggs a hen lays decreases, and when the cost to house the hens outweighs the return from egg sales, all but the smallest producers will “cull” the existing flock and replace it. The culled hens are usually not sent to slaughter but are killed on the farm typically by suffocation or gassing and then are composted or rendered. Conventional and cage-free systems typically cull hens at around 18 months of age.

“No hormones” claims on eggs are a meaningless marketing ploy, since the USDA prohibits the use of hormones in the production of eggs. Claims related to antibiotic use do have some relevance to animal welfare. However, research suggests that, when living in conventional factory farms, animals not administered antibiotics for any purpose may be more likely to experience disease conditions that cause pain and suffering. “No antibiotic” claims are only recommended when the label also contains a higher-welfare claim, such as “pasture raised.”

Pursuant to the USDA labeling guidelines, the claim has no relevance whatsoever to how the hens were raised; rather, “natural” signifies no artificial ingredients and minimally processed. By this definition, all shell eggs are natural. Other labels that have no bearing on the hens’ living conditions include “Omega-3 enriched,” “vegetarian fed,” and “farm fresh.”

The USDA conducts annual on-farm inspections to verify claims made by producers participating in its egg-grading program, which covers about 55% of the eggs sold in the United States. However, the USDA has low standards for determining compliance that do not adequately address animal welfare. For a cage-free claim, the USDA confirms that hens are not “confined to a cage and have had unlimited access to food, water, and the freedom to roam.” Except for the addition of outdoor access, the USDA does not require any conditions for the “free-range” or “pasture-raised” claim beyond what it requires for “cage-free.” Fortunately, many egg producers participate in third-party certification programs that specifically address animal welfare.

Cartons of certified eggs typically contain the word “certified” and/or a certification logo/seal.

United Egg Producers (UEP) certifies both caged and cage-free housing systems. (It does not certify free-range or pasture-raised production.) If the UEP seal doesn’t contain the words “cage-free certified,” then the eggs were produced by hens housed in small, crowded cages.

Caged housing is prohibited under the USDA Certified Organic program, but genuine outdoor access is currently not required (and under the recently published updates to organic regulations, won’t be required for all USDA Certified Organic producers until 2029). Consequently, eggs labeled as “organic” may come from hens raised cage-free, free-range, or on pasture. When buying organic eggs, it is necessary to look for these additional claims to determine how the hens were housed.

At least four third-party programs certify pasture-raised eggs, and all these programs list participating producers on their website. See “Identifying Certified Pasture-Raised Egg Brands” below.

Certified pasture-raised eggs are now available in most major chain grocery stores and online. To locate these products, see “Finding Certified Pasture-Raised Eggs and Plant-Based Egg Alternatives” below.

Housing plays a major role in determining animal welfare. However, there are other important animal welfare issues, including painful disease conditions caused by breeding for high egg production, killing of newly hatched male chicks, transport and killing of hens when egg production declines, and procedures—such as beak-trimming—that can cause acute and chronic pain. Third-party animal welfare certification programs address some but not all these concerns and to varying degrees. Because of this, some individuals choose to not consume eggs and use plant-based substitutes instead.

Plant-based alternatives (including egg replacers, egg scrambles, and hard-boiled eggs) are now available in some stores and online. To locate these products, see “Finding Certified Pasture-Raised Eggs and Plant-Based Egg Alternatives” below. In addition, recipes can be found on the internet that guide consumers in preparing their own low-cost, plant-based egg substitutes.

Identifying Certified Pasture-Raised Egg Brands*

The following third-party programs certify pasture-raised eggs:

American Humane Certified seal
American Humane Certified

Look for “pasture raised,” as not all eggs certified by this organization are.

Certified Humane seal
Certified Humane

Look for “pasture raised,” as not all eggs certified by this organization are.

*The recommended certification programs are included here based only on an evaluation of their standards as they relate to animal welfare and to some extent the frequency of audits and percentage of locations of an operation that are audited. Their inclusion on this list does not constitute an endorsement of the quality of the auditors or independent auditing company used by the certifier. Consideration of the effects of production on wildlife, the environment, or any aspect of production beyond the farmed species is beyond the scope of this webpage.

Finding Certified Pasture-Raised Eggs and Plant-Based Egg Alternatives

The following resources can be used to locate pasture-raised eggs and plant-based alternatives:

Find Humane

Website and app to find higher-welfare animal products

Shop with Your Heart

Grocery list search function that includes plant-based alternatives

USDA Local Food Directories

Online directories of CSAs, farmers markets, and on-farm markets

Additional Resources

Organic Egg Scorecard

The Cornucopia Institute’s
Organic Egg Scorecard

Contact Us

For additional information, contact AWI staff using the form below.

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