Deciphering the myriad of claims on a carton of eggs

Photo: Hiroko Masuike for The New York Times

Invariably, I pick up an expensive carton of brown eggs, look inside, poke the eggs to make sure they are loose and unbroken and then set them back down. This continues through 3 cartons of eggs until I finally find a dozen that has copy writing successful enough to convince me that origin of the eggs was an idyllic pasture tended by compassionate farmers. In other words, I have been in desperate need of a guide to separate fact from fiction.

From the New York Times:
Some claims on egg cartons are regulated by the federal government, some by the states and some not at all. Some affect consumers’ health, some touch upon ethics and some are meaningless. All purport to describe how the hens were raised, or what they were fed, or what extra benefits their eggs might provide. So, what do these terms mean?
Based on the article, I made a cheat sheet for my wallet.

Grade refers to firmness, AA best.
Emblems: National Organic Program, U.S.D.A., Animal Family Farmers (independents, less than 500 chickens), Humane Farm Animal Care, American Humane Society
Organic: needs National Organic Program emblem
Chickens are naturally omnivores, but non-vegetarian feed can contain all manner of terrible things
Pasture raised, which means non-vegetarian
DHA Omega-3
Pasteurized, good for recipes with raw eggs
Antibiotics claim requires USDA or National Organic Program certification

Less than ideal, but better than meaningless:
Grade refers to firmness, A good.
Emblems: United Egg Producers Certified
Cage free almost meaningless, free range is a little better
ALA Omega-3

Meaningless or bad:
Grade refers to firmness, B bad.
Terms natural, naturally raised, hormones are meaningless

Perhaps somebody will craft an attractively designed egg-shaped card suitable for lamination but, until that occurs, I will be relying on the above cheater.

New York Times on egg carton labeling


  1. Being in marketing I know that EVERYTHING written on the outside of a package is marketing and is therefore suspect. Even things that are required by law can be “massaged” to sound better/worse.

    And because of that, I raise my own chickens. And there is NOTHING tastier than eggs that are only a few hours old.

  2. OR buy your eggs from a farmers market. I know the people my eggs come from and have even Google-stalked their farm (its even smaller than I would have thought and within 50 miles). A couple of weeks ago I even got to meet a couple of their chickens as they sold some off to an urban farmer.

  3. The title should read “Deciphering the myriad claims on a carton of eggs.” The word “myriad” means “a lot of” and therefore does not need the word “of” to follow it.

  4. The eggs I get have the laying date hand written in pencil on them by my daughter… she keeps four hens in the back garden. We know exactly what goes through those hens… exactly what their feed is and how they are enjoying life…

  5. Great post – thanks.
    We have our own chickens but they don’t lay quite enough for us, or sometimes vacation from laying – so we occasionally find ourselves at the store, looking for a dozen from chickens we hope are treated like our own… it can be a semi-agonizing process.

    I’d chip in a buck for a cheat-card were someone to make one.

  6. is it just me or do few of thoew terms refer to the living conditions of the chickens (and is it just me or is a pasturised egg a terrible idea)

    in th uk you basicaly have, in odrer of preference:

    Organic (free to roam chickens with natural feed)
    free range (free to roam, normal feed)

    then all sort of wildly named versions of ‘barn eggs’ which basically mean they live in a dark cage… some have rspca standards or are slightly better than hell but it’s marginal.

    in th euk the argument against caged egg birds has largely been won (except in the 100000s of egs we eat that we don’t have such control over like in processed meals, fast food etc) basically because free range eggs just taste much much better. or rather they taste of egg and the other crap tastes like egg flavoured paint.

  7. You know, the whole free range or caged thing is moot once you take into account the fact that almost every male chick is culled (some are sold to breeders for meat, but they are the minority). My gf’s family works on the egg business and the culling is definitely a horrible sight—some bury them alive, some even use a kind of giant blender and toss them in

  8. How do we get the “Ideal”: “Pasture raised, which means non-vegetarian chickens” *when* “Chickens are naturally omnivores, but non-vegetarian feed can contain all manner of terrible ____”?

    Are there free-range vegetarian chickens?

    Are we talking about “non-veg” as in worms and insects in the pasture, vs. “non-veg” as in rendered dead euthanized pets, downer cows and road-kill, simmered down, skimmed-off, dried-out and ground-up and added into egg-producing-chicken feed?

    Or do we just have to pick our battles?

  9. Should be under meaningless: Pasturized.
    Not only is it spelled (correct: Pasteurized) incorrectly -unless they mean that the chickens come from pastures– Pasteurizing eggs would render them hard boiled! Eggs in cartons are raw, uncooked and un-Pasteurized that’s why you can get Salmonella from them if you don’t cook them correctly.

    1. Davidson’s Safest Choice® is the leader in pasteurized shell eggs! Using a revolutionary patented technology, National Pasteurized Eggs, Inc. produces Davidson’s Safest Choice® Pasteurized Shell Eggs and distributes them across the nation. This process kills Salmonella bacteria and viruses like Avian influenza. Yet Davidson’s Safest Choice® eggs look, cook and taste just like other shell eggs.

  10. @ MrAlistair & Falcon Seven

    from Chemical & Engineering News
    “The eggs are pasteurized by heating them in warm water. The temperature of the yolk must be controlled between 128 and 138.5 °F. At lower temperatures, the egg is not pasteurized, and at higher temperatures, the albumen (egg white) loses its functionality. Each egg is weighed and directed to a series of warm water baths. The combination of time and water temperature heats the eggs enough to kill Salmonella without cooking the egg. The entire process takes about an hour.

    But doesn’t heating the eggs denature the proteins? Well, yes–but not much.

    With careful scrutiny, the yolk will seem more substantial and the white will appear better formed and appear to have a very mild opaqueness, according to the Davidson’s Eggs website. It adds that the egg will taste and cook the same as a quality farm-fresh egg in all respects.”

    And as was mentioned in the original post, pasteurized eggs are very useful in recipes calling for raw eggs especially if they may be consumed by children, elderly people or pregnant women (who are all strongly advised to avoid raw eggs).

  11. Their patented process probably produces eggs with ‘pasteurized shells’, which would make them ‘technically’ correct. However, the shell may be ‘clean’, but the inside of the egg is still a teaming cauldron of deadly bacteria. I, for one, prefer my Salmonella well done and a bit on the dry side.

  12. Falcon Seven – as I posted above, the way eggs are pasteurized today they are pasteurized all the way through, not just the shells.

    Also there are far more pasteurized egg products in cartons available than pasteurized shell eggs -these have been in use in food services (restaurants, hospital kitchens etc) for much longer than they have been available as general consumer products.

  13. Zale X, why would anyone pay more for eggs that have been essentially ‘precooked’ than one would pay for plain old raw eggs?
    Again it’s just pointless marketing drivel driven by a worthless patent claim to fool a frightened and generally science ignorant public. If the patent were to be challenged by a prior art claim (heating of any material is an obvious and proven way to kill bacteria and neither the method or the process could be considered new or unique), it would be thrown out in a minute. It’s too bad that the USPTO employs so many idiots that they would grant a patent on a ‘character-based communication system comprised of a graphite based inscription utensil and fibrous, cellulose based, recording medium’.
    “Eggs, cook ’em if you’ve got ’em.™©®”

  14. Falcon Seven, because there are recipes where there is no satisfactory substitute for raw eggs (egg nog, proper ceasar salad dressing…) and to quote from the article you posted:

    “Even undercooked, or runny, scrambled and fried eggs have been implicated in some outbreaks and are “not without risk,”

    So if you want the scrambled eggs you are serving to your toddler, your pregnant wife or elderly father to be safe but not over cooked you might think that the small difference in price would be worth paying.

    Also, the cartons of eggs have longer before they expire. If you don’t use a lot of eggs it might be a better choice than having to throw out expired regular eggs.

  15. I disagree that “cage free” is “almost meaningless” considering most other layers live their entire lives in stacked battery cages where they can’t perch or get any exercise.

    I would imagine being able to at least walk around is pretty meaningful to a chicken.

  16. i believe in reincarnation and time travel, and i further believe that the people that are rude to animals get reincarnated over and over again as the very same farm factory animals they were mean to. is that recognition you see in that animal’s weeping eyes? could be you time traveled and reincarnated in your next life.

    some people believe a god/man/ghost that was light skinned in a desert peopled by darker-skinned died for sins of future xians, i got different stuff that i believe. and so when i eat eggs i hope my beliefs are true.

  17. I too keep a small flock of hens for eggs. Even though I no longer buy eggs, it’s been a quandary for me to know how to describe my eggs to the few people who have approached me wanting to buy my surplus. I keep my hens in a rotational grazing system, which means they’re in a spacious pen on a fresh patch of grass every day. Is the pen really just a big cage? I dunno. So I’m hesitant to say they’re “cage-free.” Also, since they’re on my untreated lawn, it’s unclear whether I can say that they’re pastured. Perhaps “lawned” is the word I want. And yes, they’re omnivorous, which means they find their own bugs and worms. I also bring them offerings of squash bugs, and fish skins whenever we eat salmon or trout. Definitely not vegetarians, these birds. They are in fact little gourmets, as I also give them split tomatoes from the garden, and plenty of dandelion greens.

    One other item. While the tightness of egg whites is pretty universally accepted as an indicator of freshness, I have sometimes seen a very different phenomenon. My hens are much older than the average factory laying hen, and that means they often produce much larger than average eggs. These beyond jumbo size eggs that my hens occasionally produce contain whites that are watery and loose. This is true even when I crack the egg into the frying pan when it is still warm from the hen’s body. It don’t get any fresher than that. The egg is deliciously fresh – nothing wrong with it at all. But it doesn’t fit the conventional wisdom for freshness. Just thought I’d throw that tidbit out there. Loose whites don’t indicate an old egg 100% of the time.

  18. I can tell you from personal experience those “country hen” eggs are amazing – even better than the local CSA eggs we get. pricey though.

  19. I worked for a few months at an egg farm in Washington State. We regularly packed the eggs into cartons that said “Oregon Fresh Eggs”.

  20. Zale X – I will continue to use properly fresh eggs when I will use them raw. I have to wonder how much pasteurizing eggs would help as offset against the loss of freshness from all the shipping around..

    (properly fresh is farmer’s market in my case, as I’m neither hardcore nor stable enough to raise hens)

  21. #6 One thing you can do is to keep back the empty egg shells and roast them to sterilise them, then crush them up to a fine grit and put it back into their feed a small bit at a time (about an egg’s worth of crushed shell per chicken per day)

  22. Secret Life of Plants:

    Indeed, the shorthand guidelines from this post were a little unclear. Pastured eggs come from chickens with some access to worms and such on the ground. Thus they are “non-vegetarian”, but they are ideal — better nutrients, better flavor. Most farmers who pasture their eggs probably don’t feed them cow brains.

    However, if you’re getting non-pastured eggs, you may want vegetarian fed because it’s these ones that may eat horrible things.


    You disagree that cage-free is almost meaningless? Read Michael Pollen’s Omnivore’s Dilemma. Better lives for egg layers is meaningful, but “cage-free” promises very little and thus is meaningless.

    Zale X:

    Pastured eggs from a respectable provider (farmers market, CSA), or eggs from your own hens, are not likely to be contaminated with salmonella and the like. Salmonella is a sign of unhealthy eggs.

    And if anyone wants to know the true way to tell a good pastured dozen eggs: if they are uniform in color, shape and size, they are not pastured. If you crack them open and the yolk is not firm and bright orange, they are not pastured.

  23. One of my favorite memories of Old Sturbridge Village, an 1840s living history museum, is watching one of the interpreters plowing a field using oxen, and seeing the chickens come running over when he started, to follow a few feet behind him in the freshly plowed row, trying to get at all the bugs and worms exposed. It was kind of an avian feeding frenzy.

    I bet they lay the best eggs ever, too.

  24. Everyone seems crazed about the Omega 3’s, but I have been told that any benefit that Omega 3 fatty acids have is destroyed by cooking them, rendering this claim on most eggs to be pointless (unless you’re getting the cookies before they’re baked :)

    Anyone able to corroborate this or disprove it?

  25. @Bolivar13 (31):

    I had a quick look at some food science journals. The concensus seems to be that the Omega-3s stay intact. For example:

    Culinary processes like boiling, grilling and frying, whether done conventionally or with a microwave oven, did not lead to a reduction in the n-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) fraction of the total fatty acids, indicating that these fatty acids have a high durability and a low susceptibility to thermal oxidative processes. The culinary processes used in this study also had an insignificant influence on the fat quality indicators–the peroxide and anisidine value. The fat quality indicators in herring, both after conventional and microwave heating, differ little, and indicate a low content of primary and secondary products of oxidation.
    [Nahrung. 2002 Dec;46(6):383-8.]

    …which basically says that the Omega-3s in mackrel survive cooking when boiled, grilled, fried or microwaved.

    Similar results are reported (in different articles) for salmon, chicken and beef. Beef is an exception in that “Frying improved the omega6/omega3 fatty acids ratio in beef patties from 10.67 (raw) to 5.37 (fried)”.

    Mind you, I’ve seen several reputable sources claiming that the Omega-3s are, like most miracle foods, good for you but vastly overhyped. It’s probably better to eat them than not, but don’t expect the supplements to stop dementia or cure your kid’s autism. Things that sound too good to be true generally are.

  26. Jim C:

    I have read the Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and agree that is an excellent book.

    But as the NYT article states “pasture-raised” is a term with no regulation. Unless you are getting your eggs at the farmer’s market (which I highly recommend) it probably has less meaning than “cage-free”.

    For people who get at least some of their eggs at a grocery store (which is most people), “cage-free” is a significant improvement in chicken living standards compared to battery cages. Even if cramped, they can lay in a nest, flap their wings, and perch. Since you read Pollan’s book you know the “free range” generally means the minimal requirement to allow the use of the term–a small attached dirt yard.

    Considering that many companies do the absolute least to use these regulated terms, do you really think an unregulated term like “pasture-raised” means anything? I guess I might be cynical but I just imagine people throwing a scrap of sod into battery cages or something ridiculous like that.

    My point is that I’d hate for people not to pay the extra $1 or $1.50 for a step in the right direction like cage-free because it is “almost meaningless”.

  27. Germany (no, the EU) has introduced a really simple system, maybe with some good sides. There is a stamp on each egg (every egg sold in the EU), consisting of a leading number and a producer code. The leading number can be

    0: 24 hours organic freerunning, no antibiotics

    1: freerunning, 4 m² / chicken

    2: indoor, but not cages

    3: cages

    So, buying good eggs is really simple: only buy eggs that start with 0. Or, if they are not available/to expensive, eggs stamped with a 1. And never a 3-egg.

  28. Eating eggs is chicken abortion.

    Or some would say….

    I say an egg’s an egg’s an egg. Some folks have too much time on their hands, and not enough to worry about, I guess!

    I like my eggs from a styrofoam carton, on sale.

  29. Cephalo786-

    Maybe my memory is failing regarding the Pollan book and the cage-free issue. I would agree that some improvement is better than none. But I believe it was Judy’s Farm that he toured, where he discovered how a term like “cage free” might only mean that they open the door to the cages for a couple weeks. Is my memory off? I don’t have the book in front of me.

    Ultimately I think the proof is in the egg. If the egg is healthy (not of uniform size shape or color, with a bright firm yolk) then it’s a good sign that the chicken is not on antibiotics, is eating a healthy diet and is not in a state of distress. If the eggs are uniform with pale limp yolks, its a bad sign. And indeed, a lot of the “meaningless” cage free varieties do appear healthier and taste better than the industrial varieties. So point taken, and yeah, I will always buy Judy’s over the industrial variety.

    Incidentally, I have once gotten crappy “pastured” eggs from a farmers market, and my solution was to go to other providers. Not only because the quality matters to me, but I really doubt their pastured claims as a result.

  30. Ask you and you will receive, Mister Jalopy!

    I had the day off today and I spent it designing a handy “Ideal Egg” shopping guide… print it, fold it, and bring it with you!

    Download the pdf here.


    Hmm, maybe I’ll do a series of these?

  31. Ahhhh – Qatey beat me to it! She is indeed quicker with the Pen tool than I :) I’ll throw another egg-shaped, foldable, wallet-sized egg labeling guide out there to help people make informed decisions … hope it comes in handy: Egg Labeling Guide

    Thanks for the pointer to a great article!

  32. I could not disagree more that pastured eggs are likely to be free of salmonella.

    Salmonella lives in the intestines of animals. It is a naturally occuring bacteria. It also lives in the ovaries of hens.

    Birds eat a lot of nasty stuff on the ground. Flies can transmit salmonella to birds. You cannot tell by looking at a chicken or its egg whether or not there is salmonella present.

    A pasterized egg makes sense not only if you are using it raw. Think about cross contamination.

    Anyway, “pasteurized” is a term that cannot be used unless certain conditions are met per the FDA.

    Since pasteurization destroys bad bacteria as well as neutral bacteria, pasteurized eggs will taste fresher longer and have a longer shelf life.

    I am chef. I will only use these eggs especially since I don’t know if all my customers have healthy immune systems or whether or not they are pregnant.

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