By Sarah Horner, TX State Dietetic Intern

Let’s be honest. Poultry and egg labels are downright confusing. Free range, cage-free, pasture-raised, organic, hormone-free, and the list goes on. . . What do they all mean? Are they worth paying for?  Some labels are closely regulated and meet high standards while other terms are used as marketing ploys or lack clarity and transparency. Having a better understanding of common labels will help you make the best choice for you and your family when it’s time to head to the grocery store.

Poultry labels

Who is responsible for regulating poultry labels in the US?

The Food Safety and Inspection Services (FSIS) is the agency within the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA

that ensure certain labels are used correctly and truthfully. However, not all labels are regulated and some terms lack a standardized meaning, making it even more confusing for consumers to choose products. Additionally, some labels meet standards set by independent or non-profit organizations, such as labels that strive for improved animal welfare. Let’s dive deeper into some of the most common labels found on poultry and eggs.

Natural

‘Natural’ is regulated by the USDA and means the chicken contains no artificial ingredients, no added color, and is minimally processed. This term says nothing else about how the chickens were raised or overall quality of the product. If chicken contains the label ‘Natural’, it must also include a statement explaining how the product meets requirements (for example, “no added color”).

No Added Hormones

This label can cause a lot of confusion and put simply, has no meaning. Hormones are not permitted in raising poultry in the US, meaning that any chicken purchased in the US is hormone-free. This label is regulated by the USDA and if used, must also contain the statement “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

No Antibiotics

This label is regulated by the USDA and requires significant documentation to validate the chickens have not received antibiotics for any reason. There is growing concern about the use of antibiotics in raising animals and potential negative health outcomes, such as antibiotic resistance. For those who want to avoid antibiotics, this label is reliable.

Vegetarian-Fed

This is another label regulated by USDA and requires documentation demonstrating the chickens have been fed a vegetarian diet with no animal byproducts. Vegetarian-fed chickens are not superior to or worse than other chickens, but it might mean they didn’t have much or any access to the outdoors to forage for their natural diet, which includes bugs, grubs, and worms.

Omega-3 eggs

If you see omega-3 eggs in the store, this means the chickens were fed a diet supplemented with omega-3 fatty acids with ingredients like flaxseed. Eggs vary in omega-3 content, but on average, a standard egg has about 30 mg compared to an enriched omega-3 egg that has anywhere between 100 and 600 mg.

Free-Range

‘Free-range’ is a tricky term. The USDA regulates this label and requires documentation showing that chickens were given outdoor access. Unfortunately, “outdoor access” is not clearly defined and leaves room for individual interpretation. This means you really don’t have a clear understanding about how the chickens were raised. They may have had an abundance of outdoor time to forage for food and roam or they may have been kept in a crowded coop with a small door, making it challenging to get outside.

Cage-Free

Similar to ‘free-range’, ‘cage-free’ is tricky and overall, not super helpful. This label means that cages are prohibited, but it doesn’t provide other specifications or requirements pertaining to the environment, indoor space minimums, outdoor access, or other humane practices.

Pasture-Raised

This term has no standardized meaning, which results in varying interpretations by producers. When paired with an animal welfare label, such as Certified Humane, this label carries greater meaning and has met specific requirements set by the organization.

Animal Welfare Labels

The term “humane” is not regulated by the USDA. If animal welfare is important to you, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) has identified three meaningful animal welfare certifications:

  • Animal Welfare Approved by A Greener World
  • Certified Humane by Human Farm Animal Care
  • Animal Welfare Certified by Global Animal Partnership

These labels meet various standards for overall treatment and care, feed specifications, outdoor access, space requirements, and humane transport and slaughter. Additionally, to support a better life for the chickens, normal poultry behavior is encouraged, such as roaming, scratching, perching, and foraging for food.

Non-GMO

Chickens themselves are not genetically modified in the US. This label specifies that the chickens were fed non-GMO feed. If you want to purchase non-GMO foods, look for reliable labels, such as Non-GMO Verified Project, Certified Non-GMO by A Greener World, and USDA Organic.

Organic

The ‘Organic’ label is regulated by the USDA, and means that the farm has met numerous requirements. The label ensures the chickens were provided non-GMO 100% organic feed with no animal byproducts, given access to the outdoors (meeting ‘free-range’ standards), and are raised without the use of antibiotics. Remember that ‘Organic’ also encompasses non-GMO standards.

Want to learn more?

Reach out to the product company or farmer via email, website, or even a local farmer’s market. Additionally, the following websites are helpful resources to gain an even more in-depth understanding about various labels:

  • aspca.org
  • globalanimalpartnership.org
  • agreenworld.org
  • USDA.gov
  • nongmoproject.org

By Sarah Horner | Dietetic Intern and Human Nutrition Graduate Student

References

Meat and poultry labeling terms. USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://www.fsis.usda.gov/food-safety/safe-food-handling-and-preparation/food-safety-basics/meat-and-poultry-labeling-terms. 

Meat, eggs and dairy label guide. ASPCA. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://www.aspca.org/shopwithyourheart/consumer-resources/meat-eggs-and-dairy-label-guide#:~:text=The%20USDA%20requires%20that%20producers,they%20inherently%20better%20for%20animals. 

How to decode egg labels. Certified Humane. Published February 20, 2018. Accessed April 18, 2024. https://certifiedhumane.org/decode-egg-labels/. 

Khan SA, Khan A, Khan SA, Beg MA, Ali A, Damanhouri G. Comparative study of fatty-acid composition of table eggs from the Jeddah food market and effect of value addition in omega-3 bio-fortified eggs. Saudi J Biol Sci. 2017;24(4):929-935. doi:10.1016/j.sjbs.2015.11.001