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Where egg-actly do your eggs come from?

By Sustainability Office on March 4, 2015

By Jack Eiel ’15 (Philosophy and Biology Double Major from Swarthmore, PA)

This past week I went grocery shopping.  My shopping experience was nothing exceptional, but when I reached for a carton of eggs, I hesitated.  For years I have been your typical consumer—buying things based on little other than aesthetic appeal.  However, this time I started to notice what differentiated these eggs.

Each egg carton seemed to have a different label, a different defining factor that made this carton better than the rest.  “Natural” and “Free-Range” and “Organic” were plastered all over the egg cartons, yet I had no idea what the lingo meant.

I did a little research and I thought I’d let you know what I found out.

First off, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has regulations in place that monitor the labeling of food Americans eat.  Here are a few of the most common labels seen on eggs and what exactly they mean.


The USDA defines a natural product as one “containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed.” This basically ensures that nothing funky is being added to your food.  However, the label guarantees nothing about the quality of life experienced by the hens laying the eggs.


This term is as simple as it sounds. The birds that lay these eggs are not kept in cages.  These hens are allowed to walk around and more naturally interact with other chickens.  However, the chickens do not necessarily have access to the outdoors and typically live in large barns or warehouses with less than 1 sq. ft. of space per animal.  Additionally, there are no guidelines included here involving diet or animal treatment.


The requirements that earn a company a free-range label are rather sparse.  All that is said is that “[p]roducers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside.” The USDA does not delineate the standard and duration of outdoor access.

Pasture Raised

Hens that are pasture-raised have lives that are as close to natural as possible.  These hens are afforded full outdoor access, fed a grain diet (but are permitted to forage for insects when on the pasture), and participate in their full range of natural behaviors.  These eggs have been shown to contain up to 20 times the healthy omega-3 fatty acids than factory eggs.

Organic Pasture Raised

This is the gold standard of eggs.  Not only do you get all of the benefits of pasture raised eggs, you are assured the hens were raised organically.  As according to the USDA to receive an organic label hens must be kept properly healthy, receive no hormone or antibiotic injections, and feed exclusively on 100% organic materials.

So what should I buy?

Go for the Organic Pasture Raised eggs!  These eggs are raised in humane environments, produce much tastier eggs, and offer a more sustainable alternative to factory-raised eggs.











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