The Great Wall of Egg Cartons: A Guide to Chicken and Egg Buzzwords

A picture of eggs with vaguely hysterical faces drawn on them.
They’re talking about recent egg prices.
Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

We’ve all been there, staring at the wall of eggs in the grocery store with big colorful stickers claiming every different carton is the best. Half the terms sound the same – What on earth is the difference between “free range” and “Cage-free”? I believe in empowering you to make the best choice for you and your family, so I made you this big list of buzzwords and what they mean. If you’re having trouble finding one in particular, try pressing the “ctrl” key and “f” key at the same time – it’ll pop out a little search bar for this page. (You can use this shortcut one pretty much any web or word document, it’s pretty handy 🙂 )

1.      GMO:

This stands for “Genetically Modified Organism.” This only means that the organism, whether a plant or animal, has had its DNA – the blueprint for the organism – artificially changed in some way. This could be as simple as a shortcut in cross-breeding such as taking a drought-hardy gene from one strain of corn and putting it into a high producing corn seed, or it could be something as complex such as changing the DNA of a bacterium to allow it to digest toxic waste in superfund sites to clean them up.

2.      Non-GMO:

This means that a plant or animal has not had its DNA artificially changed. While many non-GMO products are also organic, many still use conventional production methods such as chemical herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer sprays on crops, radiation treatments, and use of synthetic additives like food colorings. As a result, they’re usually not any better for the environment and may, in some cases, be worse.

Delicious red and white heart shaped gummy candy. I can taste the diabetes from here.
Would red dye #40, by any other name, taste so sweet?

3.      Certified Organic:

This means the feed has passed rigorous inspections from a third-party agency to ensure it comes from organic ingredients and/or organic approved ingredients. These include things like calcium carbonate, which comes from rocks and as such isn’t organic but also isn’t chemically derived. Organic feeds must be grown on fields that have not seen synthetic sprays in three or more years, or hydroponic systems without synthetic additives. They have also never been sprayed with synthetic herbicides or pesticides, and must not use genetically modified ingredients… the second of those I have beef with, but I digress. When organic is done right, it means less pollution for our air and water, as well as crops that are stronger and hardier in the environments we breed them for. This is one of the only labels on this list that has strict USDA definitions as well – most are highly variable.

a.      Certified organic meat: A special note must be made here about meat, as the requirements are much stricter than with crops. These animals must only eat certified organic food and never be exposed to antibiotics or additional hormones. The meat itself is not allowed to be treated with any synthetic preservatives or food colorings – what you see is what you get, which is a wonderful thing. Organically raised animals also must be raised under welfare guidelines that require things like a larger amount of space per animal than you’d see in conventional systems. There are a lot of other requirements to raising organic meat that depend on species, but that could be a full article series. Though, also… You’ll never have antibiotics in your food anyway, and you eat less estrogen from an estrogen implanted cow than a tin of peanuts, but I’ll write more detail on that another time. For more info just on the differences between GMO, non-GMO, and organic, check out What GMO, Non-GMO, and Organic Actually Mean.

Five hotdogs on a blue background. The center hotdog has mustard, the two to either side of center have ketchup, and the ones on the ends have mustard and, for some reason, green onion? Is that a normal thing?
Organic hotdogs: for when you want to ruin your compassionate heart.
Photo by Ball Park Brand on Unsplash

4.      Pastured or Pasture-Raised:

This method of raising birds can, by far, have the best welfare expectations. The chickens are able to run around on grass, forage, and do all their normal chicken stuff. However, sanitation is a big issue. If these chickens aren’t rotated regularly, they are much more likely to contract diseases than chickens raised indoors because they interact much more with wild birds. They’re also much more likely to be eaten by predators, what with the “being outdoors all the time” thing. That having been said, when done properly with a regular rotation schedule, these birds are the healthiest in the industry thanks to their access to enrichment, reduced interaction with their own waste, and exceptional foraging opportunities.

A group of white broiler chickens in a chicken tractor, which is basically a moveable, bottomless chicken tent.
Look at those healthy feathers! That nutritious pasture! Delightful!
Photo by Zoe Schaeffer on Unsplash

5.      Cage-Free:

This really only means that the animals are not caged fewer than . It says nothing about their outdoor access or how many birds are flocked together. This is generally as bad or worse than regular battery caging, because thousands of birds are jammed in together in warehouse-like units. Too many chickens loose together means the chickens become stressed because their place in the hierarchy is always in flux. However, many of these facilities use colony caging, which can allow birds to have proper flock sizes to one cage. It does not necessarily mean that they have outdoor access, enough space to move around, or access to other enrichment opportunities, however, though it should be noted that large industries are getting better at making sure their flocks get these things.

A group of red hens behind wire fencing. Three are looking at the butt of another one.
“Get your butt out of my face, Meredith!”
Photo by Nighthawk Shoots on Unsplash

6.      Free-range or free-roaming:

These chickens may still be colony caged, but they generally have a concrete or earth patio to their pen. While this allows them to do more natural behaviors, leading to better quality of life, it’s also the absolute worst way to raise chickens on a large scale. This is because one wild bird passing overhead can infect an entire flock pretty easily, since the sanitation in these places isn’t great due to their nature as fixed spaces. Without chickens moving away from their own and wild birds’ waste on a regular basis, it’s easy for one bird to become infected and then pass along the disease through their own droppings. Even when sanitation is really good, it’s easy for a large flock to destroy all the healthiest plants in their runs with overgrazing, reducing their ability to forage both plants and bugs, and leading to poorer quality sanitation because there aren’t as many plants to absorb and mitigate waste. Without proper health protocols and sanitation, and usually even with these things, this system can lead to flocks of thousands getting sick with something incurable and having to be euthanized because of one sick bird flying overhead.

A chicken yard covered by some sort of flimsy clear plastic and surrounded by chain-link fence with a concrete base. There appears to be mulch and no vegetation inside.
Imagine this, but with out the plastic wrap and with a whole lot more poop.
Photo by Steffen Lemmerzahl on Unsplash

a.      A special note on these three production systems: None actually specify how long animals must be allowed to spend in any of these spaces beyond vague statements like “a significant portion of their life,” and are highly variable on actual quality of life. A flat, barren, concrete patio with 500 other birds for five minutes a day is going to be much worse than an indoor space with 40 birds, roosting perches, and straw to play with. There are several welfare certifiers that have varying levels of strictness and efficacy, but none are perfect yet. Out of these, “Animal Welfare Approved” is the best label: they require 1.8 square feet of space per chicken with access to enrichment and continuous outdoor access to 4 square feet per bird with growing vegetation… Though they say nothing specific about how many roosts to afford per bird or the like. There are several other statements like “certified humane” that are from other certifiers and have different requirements. A breakdown for these terms and requirements can be found on Ultimately, though, the best way to ensure you’re getting high quality, humanely raised chicken and eggs is to check out your local producers and see for yourself, or to raise your own chickens after you read a few books on best practices.

7. Battery-caging:

These next two are going to be a little long. Battery caging is usually horrible and abusive. I’m not going to sugar-coat it for you. Hens are kept in long rows, generally 4 to 9 chickens to one cage, and hens are given less than a single sheet of printer-paper worth of floor space with no enrichment or ability to pursue natural behaviors like dust-bathing or nesting. Most of them adapt to not having a nesting box, but it’s still stressful for many to lay their eggs just any old place, and more stressful to be unable to interact with each other in normal ways. This results in a lot of fighting, because bored chickens have nothing better to do than bully each other, though the cramped conditions reduce their ability to hurt each other somewhat. Further, sanitation can be a huge issue because the cages, a bit over half the time, are placed over pits to catch waste rather than having the waste conveyor-belted into a bin to be wheeled away. This results in ammonia fumes wafting upwards and injuring the hens’ lungs. It’s a real downer, I know. But please, if nothing else, read the enriched caging paragraph as well – you should know that this can be one of the best methods, too!

Red laying hens, one per cage, in a line of rough wooden cages with a trough of feed lining the front. They appear to barely have enough room to turn around, and their feathers are a bit ragged and dull.
These hens are… not doin’ great, but also this is Indonesia, and there’s a much different culture around livestock there.
Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Unsplash

8. Colony caging:

This is a kind of battery caging with significantly more space… which usually just means significantly more chickens. The typical amount of hens to one colony cage is 60-80, and the tolerable number for most chickens to maintain a stable hierarchy is around 30. You can see the problem there. Further, the same sanitation issues often apply to colony caging as to battery caging. Making a battery cage bigger doesn’t really help if the amount of space per hen doesn’t increase, and nothing else has been resolved either, now does it?

9. Enriched caging:

This is… A bit of a landmine. Any amount of enrichment is better than no enrichment, but “enriched” doesn’t mean “adequately enriched.” Many of these hens have a single roost, a nest box with no nesting material, and a little rubber scratch mat to share between all of them. So, the chickens lower on the hierarchy are never really allowed to use these items, and their welfare isn’t much improved except that the big boss chickens pick on them less (which, hey, that’s still worth something). That doesn’t mean it can’t be done right though! A lot of producers, even on the huge corporate side of things, are starting to make changes that are incredible! Blue lighting integrated into the floors can help chickens stay calm and happy, reducing bullying in the flock. Larger cages with more roosts and nesting boxes allow everyone a chance to enjoy the opportunity. Added nesting materials not only make nesting more comfortable, they also act as toys! These and other changes can make an appropriately sized and housed flock have as good or better welfare outcomes than pastured chickens, because they also aren’t ever exposed to predators or infections from wild birds! But, it should be noted, these things are pretty expensive in comparison to pasturing chickens, so appropriately pastured chickens are likely to be the best option for humane chickens until humanity hits Star Trek levels of advanced.

A mixed flock of chickens roosting on three beams. The middle one is standing as though on a stage.
Beam me up, Scotty! Heh, get it? ‘Cause I’m on a beam? What? Why are you all avoiding eye contact with me?”
Photo by Zoe Schaeffer on Unsplash

10.      Vegetarian- or vegan-fed:

This means there are no animal parts in the feed. While this sounds good in theory, keep in mind that chickens are omnivores. They eat bugs all the time, and will eat meat, fish, and broken eggs when given the chance, though this may upset their tummies if it’s too much or they’re not used to it. Double check that your feathered friends are getting enough protein when using a vegetarian diet for ease of molting, good growth, and steady egg production, and… Maybe don’t get those vegetarian-fed eggs unless you’ve seen how they get the hens enough protein.

A red hen staring a little... too intently at you.
“I crave flesh, mother.”
Photo by Sarah Halliday on Unsplash

11.      Medicated feed:

I don’t recommend medicated feeds except in cases of illness where a veterinarian might prescribe them to prevent suffering. This is because over time, when they aren’t needed, they make the medications less effective against the disease. When the disease is constantly exposed to the medicine, it allows only those strains strong against the medicine to survive. Vaccines are usually used in cases where someone would otherwise want to use a medicated feed, because they allow a chicken’s immune system to learn about the disease without getting sick with it. After the immune system has learned, it’s then able to naturally fight the disease if the chicken comes across it later. That having been said, it should be noted that the coccidiosis medication in feeds is absolutely not an antibiotic. It targets coccidia, a single-celled organism (also known as a protozoan), by blocking its ability to use the essential vitamin thiamine. The little protozoa then become deficient and die without reproducing. If you get your chicks vaccinated for coccidia, though, don’t use the medicated feed. The medication will kill the vaccine before the chicks’ immune systems can find out what it is and catalog it as something to destroy.

12.      Egg grades:

These are determined by freshness, egg shell consistency and color, yolk consistency and color, air cell size, and presence or absence of blood spots. AA is the highest quality and freshest, with A following. B grade eggs are only used for liquid eggs, dried eggs, and baking, usually because the egg shell is too lumpy. Anything less than B isn’t allowed for consumption.

Three eggs, orange, blue, and green, in a little faux nest with faux flowers. They're very cutely speckled.
Green eggs have not been evaluated as a distinct egg class by the FDA or USDA, Sam-I-Am.
Photo by Haley Owens on Unsplash

13.   Egg color:

Shell color is entirely personal preference. Brown, green, and speckled eggs are quite pretty, but the egg inside should look and taste the same regardless of what color you choose. Yolk color and shell quality, on the other hand, often indicate the level of nutrition and care a chicken is receiving. Pale yellow yolks can mean a chicken is either getting too much calcium or not enough variety in their diet. Weak shells can indicate anything from stress to a host of nutritional deficiencies. Chickens who receive healthy, complete nutrition and proper care in their management generally have deep golden or even brilliant orange yolks with strong, thick shells, though that yolk color can also be “artificially” improved with additives such as marigold petals in the hen’s diet.

14.   Several terms that are virtually meaningless:

a.      Natural: All animal products are technically natural, because they came from a living source.

A plate of delicious all-natural, farm fresh, hormone and antibiotic free, omega-3 enriched, pasteurized, heritage chicken nuggets.
“All natural chicken nugget” should, by itself, be an oxymoron.
Photo by Tyson on Unsplash

b.      Farm fresh: All businesses that sell animal products are classified as farms. Freshness is subjective.

An overflowing pile of fresh garbage.
Farm fresh!
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

c.      Hormone free: Giving hormones to chickens is illegal. Also, you get less hormone eating a cow steak raised with an implant than you do from eating a bowl of peanuts, so it doesn’t matter much anyway.

d.      Antibiotic free: The waiting period for an animal to stop having a medicine in their body is known as a “wash-out” period, and the USDA is very strict about making sure animals meet the full period. So, antibiotics from animals are never in your food, anyway.

e.      No antibiotics ever: This one actually does mean the animal has never received an antibiotic in their life. However, most production systems never see a chicken live long enough to get an illness that can be treated with antibiotics. It’s also worth noting here that if an animal does get sick enough that nothing but an antibiotic will help, farmers, organic or otherwise, are required to give that animal the medicine it needs and keep it in a non-organic flock to prevent suffering… Though how that’s enforced is questionable, and animals that need antibiotics not getting them is an ethical nightmare.

A sick chicken that has stepped away from the flock and is giving you the stink eye.
Photo by Creab Mcselvin on Unsplash

f.       Omega-3 enriched: These are eggs produced by chickens that have been eating feed high in omega-3 oils. Feed ingredients with lots of omega-3s include flax seed, fish meal, and kelp.

g.      Pasteurized: The USDA requires all egg products to be pasteurized to reduce the transmission of food-borne illnesses like salmonella. Fun fact: Pasteurization only kills the bacteria that want to kill us, not all the bacteria in an animal product.

A flirty little salmonella bacterium.
“Iiiii’m gonna get youuuu, Iii’m gonnna get you! Tee-hee!”
Photo by CDC on Unsplash

h.      Heritage breed chickens: These chicken breeds have been around since at least 1960, must be naturally bred, must be able to have a long and productive life outdoors, and cannot reach market weight before 16 weeks old, which is slow for a chicken. They also tend to be specially bred for an environment. Because of these reasons, these chickens tend to be healthier than their newer, mass-market companions when in the right environment. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean these chickens do have a better life or higher quality products, only that they usually can. When you see this label, consider checking the farm out – many offer tours and you’ll get to see some really cool chickens! Just please also respect all their biosecurity protocols so their chickens don’t get sick.

A red dorking rooster caught in the middle of crowing, which makes his face look ridiculous.
A Red Dorking rooster, exactly as advertised.
Photo by Rusty Watson on Unsplash

I hope this guide helped you feel more empowered when you’re staring down that wall of eggs. I know that this is still pretty overwhelming, and this list is huge, but hey, you took the time to read this article and becoming informed is the absolute best start to making the best decisions for you, your community, and your planet. If you’re thinking about raising chickens after all this, though, I don’t blame you! Take a look at my quick-start guide to raising chickens, visit your local library for books on bringing up your own flock, and contact your local extension office for more information on that huge topic.

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