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Decoding Egg Labels

Brown Eggs For Sale

The other day I drove past a roadside sign selling ‘Farm Fresh Brown Eggs’. Well heck, who doesn’t like farm fresh eggs? Especially brown farm fresh eggs. But what does the color brown have to do with anything? Is it more nutritious? Does it mean that the eggs are organic? Turns out there are a bunch of possible labels for eggs, so today we’re going to try to make some sense of them with the help of these definitions from Sustainable Table.

Hormone Free
The USDA has prohibited use of the term “Hormone Free,” but meats can be labeled “No Hormones Administered.”

Birds are raised without cages. What this doesn’t explain is if the birds were raised outdoors on pasture, if they had access to outside, or if they were raised indoors in overcrowded conditions. If you are looking to buy eggs, poultry or meat that was raised outdoors, look for a label that says “Pastured” or “Pasture-raised”.

GMO-Free or No GMOs
The product was produced without the use of GMOs (genetically-modified organisms). For more information, visit the Genetic Engineering page in the Issues section.

Currently, no standards exist for this label except when used on meat and poultry products. USDA guidelines state that “Natural” meat and poultry products can only undergo minimal processing and cannot contain artificial colors, artificial flavors, preservatives, or other artificial ingredients. However, “natural” foods are not necessarily sustainable, organic, humanely raised, or free of hormones and antibiotics. The label “natural” is virtually meaningless.

No antibiotics administered, raised without antibiotics or antibiotic-free
No antibiotics were administered to the animal during its lifetime. If an animal becomes sick, it will be taken out of the herd and treated but it will not be sold with this label.

In order to be labeled “organic,” a product, its producer, and the farmer must meet the USDA’s organic standards and must be certified by a USDA-approved food-certifying agency. Organic foods cannot be grown using synthetic fertilizers, chemicals, or sewage sludge, cannot be genetically modified, and cannot be irradiated. Organic meat and poultry must be fed only organically-grown feed (without any animal byproducts) and cannot be treated with hormones or antibiotics. Furthermore, the animals must have access to the outdoors, and ruminants must have access to pasture (which doesn’t mean they actually have to go outdoors and graze on pasture to be considered organic.

Pastured or Pasture-Raised
Indicates the animal was raised on a pasture and that it ate grasses and food found in a pasture, rather than being fattened on grain in a feedlot or barn. Pasturing livestock and poultry is a traditional farming technique that allows animals to be raised in a humane, ecologically sustainable manner. This is basically the same as grass-fed, though the term pasture-raised indicates more clearly that the animal was raised outdoors on pasture.

How we label our eggs
Although we raise our birds on pasture with organic feed, we aren’t certified organic, so we don’t label them so. We also don’t grade or classify our eggs so we label them “ungraded” and “unclassified”. In PA, if you label your cartons with a particular grade, they have to be inspected to confirm they meet that grade. Since we’re selling our eggs to friends and neighbors, they know how we raise them, and we want them to see it for themselves. Isn’t that the best label of all?

* This post was originally published on August 23, 2011.


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