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Free Range? Vegetarian Fed? Organic? Learn Your Egg Labels

By Anthony Todd in Food on Feb 1, 2011 6:40PM

The proliferation of labels and modifiers on eggs and meat has become fairly epic over the past ten years. We've puzzled over all the phrases in the supermarket, wondering exactly what they mean. Even for nutrition freaks, following the combinations and permutations of free range, free roaming and cage free has become difficult - and it threatens to make genuinely concerned eaters become cynics. Turns out, those labels often do mean something, thought it might be less than you think. Free range, for instance, without doing more research on an individual company, is a fairly useless label.

Salonwent through every single label we had ever heard of (and some we hadn't) and clarified the legal definitions of each, if there is a legal definition. Free range, officially, means that "the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." For some farmers, this means a barnyard. For others, this means a single window or door for 10,000 animals. Similarly, while "cage free" does make a difference to animals (who are no longer having their wings broken by tiny cages) it doesn't actually mean animals get to wander around the forest, as in the fantasies of Whole Foods shoppers.

Vegetarian-fed means just what it sounds like. Organic is a useful label, since the USDA specifically regulates and enforces the definition. "To be certified organic, the eggs must come from chickens that are cage-free and "free-range," fed only vegetarian, certified-organic feed." If you're looking for a one-size-fits-all term for the best supermarket eggs, organic is probably your best bet. On the other hand, we suggest two possible alternatives. First, do a little research. Google some of the eggs you find in the supermarket - the brands you should trust will have extensive descriptions of farms, housing conditions and provenance, with pictures. Plus, look for any scandalous articles about reporters touring the laying houses. Or, and this is our favorite option, buy local eggs from a producer you can actually talk to. It's amazing how small the difference in price is between a local egg and an egg from the supermarket labelled "organic" - in fact, the local egg may be cheaper.