Jumbo, pasteurized, cage-free, and beyond
Does this sound familiar? You’ve been dispatched to the store to buy eggs, and suddenly you realize you’ve been standing there for 10 minutes trying to suss out the difference between all the kinds of eggs. Free-range, free-roaming, organic, cage-free, vegetarian, farm-fresh—what the heck do all these terms mean? And is that a red “P” stamped on top of the eggs? What about jumbo, extra-large, and medium? Why did this carton earn a AA grade while that one just has a single A? It might seem as if your brain has been lightly scrambled, but fret not. We’ve cracked the code and created this handy guide to egg terms.
Free-range / free-roaming
To use these terms, according to USDA regulations producers must demonstrate to the agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside. That does not, however, ensure that there’s a happy, sunny meadow where fluffy chickens are fluttering about, gossiping and scratching; it just means that the structure in which they are housed needs to have a door to the outside. Some farms do, of course, provide a clucking great outdoor life for their flocks, but it’s also quite likely that the chicken laying your eggs has never seen the light of day.
There isn’t a legal definition for “cage-free,” but many factory farms raise their chicken in small (think the size of an iPad) wires enclosures known as battery cages, with insufficient room for the hen to stretch her wings. Due in part to pressure from large purchasers such as McDonald’s, Denny’s, and Walmart, the industry is moving away from that model to a system with larger nesting boxes and perches. But even with these more commodious digs, conditions aren’t necessarily ideal for the birds, as they may still have the tips of their beaks removed to prevent feather pecking and cannibalism—both of which occur when chickens are kept in close quarters.
These chickens have the greatest amount of roaming room, spending days outside and nights indoors for protection—though the beak clipping may still be on the table. “Pasture-raised” is also industry terminology and not legally defined by the USDA.
This term technically means nothing.
Neither does this one.
This term is pretty nebulous and certainly not legally defined, but it’s generally meant to indicate that the eggs came from chickens that are free to live a natural life (say, in a backyard flock) or are considered too old to lay commercial eggs and would otherwise be killed, but instead live out their lives on a sanctuary. A certain sector of the vegan community (a.k.a. “veggans”) has deemed these to be acceptable to eat, though no doubt, others dissent (and will be more than happy to tell you why).
The nonprofit animal rights organization Humane Farm Animal Care uses this as a proprietary term to indicate that the animals were treated according to specific standards. For eggs, this means the chickens were fed, housed, cared for, transported, and slaughtered in a manner than complies with the organization’s 2014 guideline, which you can read online in this PDF.
No animal products for these chickens—they’re usually raised a diet of corn and soybeans. They’re also likely to have been raised indoors, as a chicken will naturally hunt and peck for insects if it’s allowed outside. There’s no guarantee—and this one is actually kinda weird because birds are meant to be omnivores.
Here’s where the USDA puts its foot down. This is the most highly specific and regulated of all the egg terminology. In order for an egg producer to be certified organic, the facility must comply with government standards, including feeding only organic food to the hens—meaning that it contains no animal byproducts or genetically modified crops and was produced on land that has been free from the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years. The hens must be maintained without hormones, and other antibiotics and drugs may only be used in cases of disease or outbreaks. They’re raised in a cage-free environment and allowed access to the outdoors. Before a producer can be certified organic, the facility is subjected to an intensive inspection, and is subject to regular evaluations.
It’s also entirely possible for eggs to be produced organically without all the governmental oversight (it’s an expensive process and many producers either can’t or don’t care to afford it), but they can’t stamp their carton with the “certified organic” label.
The hens have flaxseed mixed in with their feed so their eggs are higher in Omega-3, a fatty acid touted for purported health benefits including anti-inflammatory qualities, depression busting, relief from rheumatoid arthritis, heart health, and more.
It’s illegal in the US to give hormones to poultry, so you can just go ahead and assume that your eggs are good to go in this regard.
Laying hens generally aren’t given antibiotics, either. This is basically résumé-padding.
Did you peek the word “pasteurized” or an encircled “P” on the carton, or a red “P’ stamped on the end of the egg? That means it’s been flash-heated (but not cooked) in the shell in a water bath to kill off any potential salmonella bacteria. Most in-shell eggs are not pasteurized, but egg products—the innards—that are sold to be made into mayonnaise, ice cream, and the like must be pasteurized by law at USDA-inspected plants.
The USDA grades eggs by the quality of their interior and exterior, evaluating cleanliness, soundness, texture and shape. Grade AA eggs have smaller air pockets, thick, firm whites, and perfect yolks. Grade A eggs have a larger air pocket, and are allowed a little more leeway. Grade B eggs are rarely found in consumer outlets, have no restrictions on air pocket size, and though they must be clean, shell staining is allowed and the shells may be misshapen or have an imperfect texture with ridges, thin spots, or rough areas. Even lower-ranked than that are Dirty (self-explanatory) and Check (which may be cracked).
“Jumbo” isn’t just flattering slang (nor is "Peewee" an insult); they're terms regulated by the USDA, and they refer to the net weight per dozen eggs.
Jumbo: 30 ounces
Extra Large: 27 ounces
Large: 24 ounces
Medium: 21 ounces
Small: 18 ounces
Peewee: 15 ounces