CHEAT SHEET: Unscrambling egg labels

Walk into any grocery store and you’ll see a lot of choice, a lot of labels, when it comes to buying eggs. The labels can give clues about where your eggs come from, but are you getting the full picture?

Here’s a guide to help you go behind the labels:

With slogans like “From our Family to Yours” and drawings of farms, it’s not always easy to tell that 90 per cent of the eggs sold in Canada are from hens raised in battery cages. Between six and eight hens share a cage, each in a space about the size of an ipad. The cages are stacked, and allow farmers to keep large numbers of birds in their barns. These cages have been banned in Europe, and several US states. These eggs are the least expensive on the shelf.

All these terms mean the same thing: that the hens are still in cages. These cages provide more room for the hens to move around, and they have perches, scratching pads and areas to nest. This system is very popular in Europe, and standard in a few US states where battery cages have been banned. These eggs are often slightly more expensive than eggs from conventionally raised hens.

Organic eggs have to be from certified farms, though there are a number of third-party groups that do this. Eggs that are certified organic are from hens that eat organic feed and have substantial access to the outdoors. In Canada, there is a minimum space requirement for the birds, and they must be provided with nesting boxes and dust bathing areas. Look for certification on the carton. Organic farmers must be audited on a yearly basis, and make up less than 2 per cent of the total farms in Canada.

These eggs are from hens that don’t live in cages, they live in a barn. They do not have any access to the outdoors. Some large scale operations keep about 20,000 birds in an open barn, with special nesting boxes to lay eggs. Aviary systems are open barns with tiers so the farmer can fit more birds into the barn. Within the Aviary system, the birds can move from one level to another, using ramps. 

Like free-run, free-range large scale farms can hold thousands of hens in a single barn. There is an outside ‘hen run’ for chickens to access. Free Range means these hens have access to the outdoors when the weather is warm, but it doesn’t guarantee they live any part of their lives outside. Some critics say that this kind of egg could also be called “from hens who live in a barn with a door.”

If you’re concerned about the welfare of chickens, this label is the one to look for. The labels may say “hens on pasture,” “pasture chicken eggs,” or “eggs from hens on green grass.” They are often also organic, but look for the stamp of certification to be sure. These hens also eat grasses and bugs when the weather allows to them to go outside, and are still mostly from smaller farms, with flocks between 500 and 1,000 birds. These are generally the most expensive on the shelf.