Egg Carton Labels and Animal Welfare

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Egg Carton Labels And Animal Welfare

Learn which egg carton labels and certification stamps are most meaningful for the welfare of laying hens

I am proud to say that our little chicken farm is now certified by Animal Welfare Approved! We are tiny, but certification for us is a way to raise awareness of humane choices. AWA’s high standards make it an excellent choice at the grocery store, where many of the other egg carton labels are not very meaningful. Most of them imply something relevant to human health and/or poultry care, and in this article, I cover only those relevant to animal welfare and determine which are most meaningful. So excluded here are labels such as “vegetarian fed” or “omega-3 enriched”, because they have nothing to do with the conditions or care of laying hens. For ease of comparison, I pruned my findings down to the most important items and presented them in tables.

Why Care About the Welfare of Laying Hens? You can read more about laying hens and animal welfare under “Pros of Keeping Chickens” in Pros and Cons of Backyard Chickens. The typical conditions of hens in the egg industry are extremely depriving and absolutely nothing like the natural habitat of their wild relatives. Read more about natural chicken behaviors, how their wild relatives live, and how to simulate that for chickens in your own backyard in Creating a Chicken Habitat.

Egg Carton Labels and Animal Welfare

The following table is largely adapted from a portion of “How to Read Egg Carton Labels” on the Humane Society’s website (see sources below), with a few clarifications.

Table 1 - Egg Carton Labels

LabelDefinitionGovernment Regulated StandardsMandatory 3rd Party Auditing
Cage FreeUncaged but outdoor access not requiredNoNo
Free Range (or Free Roaming)Must have outdoor access but no requirement for green vegetationNoNo
Pasture RaisedMust have access to green pasture but no minimum duration of accessNoNo
Certified OrganicUncaged with outdoor access but no minimum duration, and no requirement for green vegetation.YesYes

Some important take home points from the above table:

  • Only “Certified Organic” carries government regulated standards which must be verified by a 3rd party auditor.
  • Cage Free, Free Range and Pastured labels can be used without any 3rd party auditing, and when they are, they may not be very meaningful.
  • Only Pastured is defined as having access to green vegetation, BUT, as stated above, egg producers who put “Pastured” on their egg cartons were not necessarily audited. If they don’t display the stamp of an auditing organization, you can assume that they were not.
Egg Carton Labels And Animal Welfare

Like the chicken’s wild relatives, the domestic chicken is an active bird which prefers a diverse habitat with a variety of plant and animal foods.

Third Party Certifying Organizations

Words like “humane” and “pastured” mean a lot more when the egg carton also bears the stamp of a 3rd party certifying organization. The latter have standards which are available online, and they send auditors to farms to verify compliance. However, the standards vary from one organization to the other. One might expect “Certified Pasture Raised” to mean the same thing regardless of the certifying organization. It does not. Each auditing organization has different standards.

The table below summarizes the standards of the organizations, some of which have multiple levels of certification. For example, Certified Humane has Cage Free, Free Range, and Pastured programs. Please note that standards documents are lengthy and complex, and some organizations might amend them from time to time, or create additional levels of certification. Not surprisingly, I found errors in other articles on understanding egg labels, and I did my best to represent them as accurately as possible here.  If you find something you think is in error, please leave a comment.

Table 2 - Egg Certification Programs

CertificationSquare ft/birdRequiredStarvation Induced MoltBeak CuttingComments
Animal Welfare Approvedpasture + 5.8 indoorPerches, nests, dust baths, & 1/2 day pasture ProhibitedProhibitedNo min. outdoor space but must be green
Certified Humane Cage Free1.5Perches, nests, dust bathsProhibitedAllowedOutdoor access not required
Certified Humane Free Range2Perches, nests, dust baths, & 6 hrs/day outdoorsProhibitedAllowedOutdoor area need not be green
Certified Humane Pastured108 pasturePerches, nests, dust baths, & pastureProhibitedAllowedAt least 6 hrs/day green pasture
American Humane Certified Enriched Colony Cage0.8Perches and nestsProhibitedAllowedSlightly better than standard battery cage
American Humane Certified Cage Free1.25Perches and nestsProhibitedAllowedOutdoor access not required. Only 85% of standards must be met
American Humane Certified Free Range21.8 outdoorPerches, nests, dust baths, & 8 hrs/day outdoorsProhibitedAllowedOutdoor area need not be green. Only 85% of standards must be met
American Humane Certified Pastured108 pasturePerches, nests, dust bath, 8 hrs/day pasture ProhibitedAllowedOnly 85% of standards must be met
Food Alliance Certified 1.23Cage free, perches & nestsProhibitedAllowedOutdoor access not required
United Egg Producers Caged0.46No requirement for perch, nest, dust bathProhibitedAllowedStandard battery cage
United Egg Producers Cage Free1Perches and nestsProhibitedAllowedOutdoor access not required

A few things from the table above deserve emphasis or clarification:

  • Regardless of the certifying organization, “Free Range” does not require access to pasture with green vegetation.
  • Animal Welfare Approved has no minimum spatial requirement per bird on pasture. This might sound like a loop hole, but they do require that the pasture have growing green vegetation. Anyone who knows chickens knows that you won’t have growing green vegetation unless the density of chickens is very low.
  • Animal Welfare Approved requires that chickens be pastured for only half the day, but when they are not on pasture, they must have access to green forage (e.g., fodder or hay).
  • American Humane Certified leaves the reader with some lingering questions. Their document says that 85% of the standards must be met for a producer to earn certification. This may, in fact, be a loop hole. Which 85% would that be? Can a farm be certified “Pastured” with little or no green vegetation in the outdoor area, if all other requirements have been met?
  • American Humane Certified has been criticized for lack of transparency. They do provide profiles of their Scientific Advisory Committee members, but do not reveal their board of directors, nor their sources of funding.

The winners? Certified Humane “Pastured” and Animal Welfare Approved both have clear, high standards without loop holes, and both are transparent organizations.

Finally, here’s a good infographic from on eggs, egg production, and egg carton labels. It lacks information on the certifying organizations, but it does summarize the labels.




Egg Carton Labels and Animal Welfare — 33 Comments

  1. Janet,
    How many chickens did you start out with and how many eggs did they lay for you in the begging? Would you say 5 acres would be enough for goats,chickens, and veggies?

    Thank you so much for this valuable information!

    • Hi Elizabeth, we keep about 10-20 chickens at any given time. Currently I have 15 and will be getting 6 new chicks in a few weeks. How well they lay depends on breed. The best layers will each lay an egg almost every day. In contrast, some of our bantams lay 2-3 eggs per week, and tend to go broody for a few weeks in spring or summer, during which time they don’t lay at all. Five acres is definitely enough for chickens, goats, and veggies, assuming it’s all usable land and not 4 acres of wetland or something like that. Even on my one acre I could fit a few Nigerian dwarf goats if I wanted…have toyed with the idea, but I think I have enough on my hands right now. On your 5 acres you could fit some larger dairy goats, if you want. Good luck!!

  2. Hi,

    Congrats on your certification! I’m inspired to look into that as well for promoting awareness on animal rights. I talked with you awhile back about losing two chicks by hawks. You suggested getting at least two or three new chicks to add to my older flock. We ended up getting 6 adorable new ones instead!! We now have 11 chickens and will be selling eggs on the roadside.

    I have another question. Do you eat your chickens when they no longer lay eggs? I am a vegetarian and could never do that but my husband wants to know what you do with your older chickens? I wouldn’t mind keeping mine as pets and that’s it. Just thought I’d ask. Also, how much did it cost for the certification?

    Thanks so much,

    • Forgot to answer about the cost of certification. I don’t remember what it was because the details are fading from my mind – We got certified last fall, but I never got around to putting on my blog until now. Also it was a little complicated, because we were seeking Predator Friendly Certification, for which AWA certification is a prerequisite. So it was a 2 tiered thing, and a bit more complicated than usual. We applied for and received a fee reduction for one or the other of those certifications. We were able to get it because we don’t make much money off our farm. If you’re interested in AWA cert., you can read about their application process on their website and then email them with questions. We found both organizations to be very responsive and pleasure to deal with.

  3. Hi Monica, yes, I remember your previous question about the chicks. Congrats on the 6 new ones! No, we do not eat our chickens when laying declines. Not that we are opposed to eating them, it’s just more than we want to do. Killing them is traumatic for us; we’ve done it only to put ailing birds out of their misery and we hated doing it each time. Plus I would hate the plucking and butchering part.

    By the way, laying declines gradually with age, it’s not usually a sudden things. And hens are all individuals – some will lay fairly well into old age, while others lay very few by the time they are 3 or 4. I have a 9 year old who lays better than some of my 3 year olds. On the other hand, I have a 7 year old who lays very few.

    I also like having a multi generation flock. The old ones are quite savvy at foraging and predator detection, and the young ones learn from them. I think if they free range at all, the younger ones have a better survival rate with the older ones around. The old ones know what to do, and the young ones follow along. It’s flock mentality.

    There is also a natural attrition rate, if you will. Hens die for one reason or another, and you’re not likely to have an entire flock to survive together into old age. My 9 year old is the only one left from a flock of 8 chicks I got 9 years ago.

    That said, if space is really limited and you can’t add a few chicks every few years, you could find yourself caring for old hens and getting very few eggs. That’s a problem that I’m grateful not to have. My coop and runs can easily hold 20 or more hens, and we could easily expand the coop, so we will always have eggs enough for our family, and then some, even while allowing hens to grow old here.

  4. Thanks for that info, Janet – I had no idea that “pasture-raised” could mean that the hens actually don’t have access to “pasture.” Good grief, will the deception in labeling never end?

  5. Fantastic post! So eye-opening. When my husband and I are in North America we’ve been buying “pastured” certified organic eggs from our supermarket thinking that was the most animal-welfare-friendly we could get. I am going to search for AWA from now on. We are lucky when we are at our home in Greece – we walk down the street and ask our friend if he has any eggs from the chickens he keeps in his olive grove. I grew up in Mass. (Winchester), and if I still lived there I’d be at your doorstep right now!

    • Thanks so much for the kind remarks, Maureen. It was eye-opening for me, as well, when I did the research. AWA certified foods are really hard to find, by the way. I think the only place I’ve seen them is at Whole Foods. But AWA and customer awareness are both growing, so in time, foods bearing the AWA stamp should become more widely available.

  6. Super article – easy to read and so informative! Thanks for the time you put into it. Definitely gonna encourage some friends to read this! Know more about where are food comes form & how it is raised, I believe, is a key to being healthier. It’s so easy to read those labels & think “Oh they sound great!” but it’s another thing to really know what the terms mean (and don’t mean) as they can be so confusing for consumers.

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  27. Greetings from California!
    I’ve enjoyed reading the articles on your web site. I’ve been raising chickens for several years but there is always something more to learn. One thing I’ve struggled with in the past is how to successfully introduce new chicks to the old girls! Like you, every few years I get a few new chicks and wonder about how to integrate them into my flock. How old should they be? Doing it gradually seems best , but for how long? Regardless of how I’ve done it in the past, I always have some ruffled feathers!
    Thanks so much, Janet

    • Hi Janet, sorry for the delay, but I’ve been a bit overwhelmed with work! There is no clearcut answer to your question. The more gradually you introduce them, the better. I generally do not have them fully integrated until the younger birds are laying or about to start laying, because at that point they are about at adult size, and are therefore less likely to be bullied. Doing it that way, I have had very few problems with aggression.

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