Egg carton labels and animal welfare: Are you being misled?

Some labels mean exactly the opposite of what they claim Photo: James Lee jronaldlee Flickr CC

WASHINGTON, July 3, 2013 –As consumers become increasingly aware of the conditions of egg laying hens in factory farms, there has been a movement towards implementing what is perceived as more humane methods.   However, unregulated and misleading claims on egg carton labels may be tricking consumers into buying more expensive eggs that are not necessarily providing a better life for the hens laying them.

Supplying Americans with nearly 86 billion eggs per year, many egg-laying hens are subjected to a miserable existence.  An estimated 95% of all eggs produced in the U.S. come from hens in battery cages; floorless wire frames stacked one above the other in long rows, housing tens of thousands of hens. 

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Battery cages are around 67 to 76 square inches in size, about 16 inches wide, and hold four hens.   Four birds with a wingspan between 30 and 32 inches wide are packed into a cage the size of a microwave oven, where they are confined for their entire lives.

Because they cannot stand, spread their wings, or engage in other natural behaviors, the hens grow restless and aggressive.  To reduce injuries, most egg-laying hens have part of their beaks cut off, a painful procedure that severs bone, cartilage, and soft tissue.  There is evidence that the pain of beak cutting is severe and chronic.    

To reduce costs, hens are routinely denied veterinary care, and in the worst cases of infection and injury, left to die on their own by being thrown in the garbage with the day’s dead hens.  

After about one year of egg laying, the hens are considered “spent.”  By this time approximately 25% have died from injury or disease.  Since they are highly bruised and injured from the wire in the battery cages, they can only be sold for pet food or highly processed human foods.

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Typical battery cage for four hens. By takomabibelot Flickr


Some egg producers force molting (one last egg- laying cycle) by shocking the birds’ bodies.  The hens are starved and denied water and sunlight for up to 18 days.  This process can result in many birds losing up to 25% of their body weight and five to 10% of the birds die during the process.

Since egg-laying breeds do not grow fast enough to have economic value beyond their eggs, male chicks are killed on the day they hatch, often by being thrown in a trashcan and suffocated by the weight of others, gassed, or thrown alive into a grinder. 

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The move toward more humane practices

As more people have become aware of these conditions there has been a move towards “cage-free,” “humane certified,” and other feel-good labels.  With the understanding that it is more expensive to raise animals in a humane way, consumers are willing to pay more for labels that make promises of happy hens on green pastures.

The reality of the labels, however, is far from the pastoral vision they sell to consumers.

How to read an egg carton label:

Claims on egg carton labels, especially those regarding animal welfare, are generally unregulated.  Moreover, animal welfare claims on egg cartons lack official standards or enforcement mechanisms. 

Misleading labels:

  • Cage-Free: Birds are not caged and live in barns, but generally have no outdoor access.  Even though they can engage in behaviors like nesting, walking around, and spreading their wings, beak cutting is allowed and there is no third party auditing to ensure compliance.
  • Certified Organic: Chickens are inside barns, un-caged, and required to have access to an outdoor area.  However, there are no defined standards for the duration, amount, or quality of outdoor access, so it can literally be a ten-foot patch of dirt for thousands of birds, which is open for one hour a day for two weeks of the chicken’s life.  The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) required that these chickens be fed a vegetarian diet without pesticides or antibiotics.  Both forced molting through starvation and beak cutting are permitted.
  • Free-Range: Even though the USDA has set standards for “free-range” poultry products, there are no standards for “free-range” eggs.  Typically birds are not caged, and generally have some outdoor access, but there are no requirements pertaining to duration, amount, or quality.  Both molting through starvation and beak cutting are permitted.  There is no third party auditing.
  • American Humane Certified: Both cage confinement systems and cage free systems are allowed; “furnished cages” are the size of a legal paper.  Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.  Compliance is verified by American Humane Association.
  • United Egg Producers Certified:  Most of the egg industry complies with this voluntary program where hens are confined to battery cages. Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.  Compliance is verified via United Egg Producers.
  • There are several other labels, like “free-roaming” for which the USDA has not set standards regarding eggs.   “Vegetarian-fed,” “natural,” or “fertile” have no bearing on the animals’ welfare.  “Farm-fresh,” “naturally raised,” and “animal friendly” are all unregulated labels that may fool shoppers into buying products that are not really what they claim to be.

What to look for:

  • Animal Welfare Approved: Highest standard from any third party auditing program.  Chickens have to be cage-free at all times and must have continuous access to an outdoor perch.  They must also be able to perform natural behaviors and forced molting through starvation and beak cutting are prohibited.  Compliance is verified by Animal Welfare Institute.
  • Food- Alliance Certified: Birds are cage free and must have access to an outdoor area or natural daylight.  They must also be able to perform natural behaviors.  Food Alliance sets specific density, perching, space and nesting standards. There is no forced molting through starvation, but beak cutting is allowed.
  • Certified Humane: while official sounding, this is not a government-sponsored program.  Hens are inside barns, un-caged, but there is no outdoor access requirement.  Hens must be able to perform natural behaviors and specific density, perching, space, and nesting requirements must be met.  Forced molting through starvation is prohibited, but beak cutting is allowed.  Compliance is verified via Humane Farm Animal Care.

The best thing consumers who are worried about animal welfare can do is to buy from small farmers at their local farmer’s market, ask to take a tour of a nearby egg farm, and ask their grocers questions about how the food is raised.  Cornucopia is also a good resource of online ethics “scorecards” for different egg farmers. 


READ MORE: A World in Our Backyard by Laura Sesana

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Laura Sesana

Laura Sesana is a writer and DC, Maryland attorney, joining the Communities in 2012.  She is the author of Colombia: Natural Parks, and has also written several articles on literary criticism.  She writes about food, health, nutrition, women’s legal issues, and the environment.  

In addition to writing for the Communities, Laura also works as an attorney and legal content writer.


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