Eggs and labels: what are the differences between store-bought and farm fresh eggs?

More people are keeping laying hens or buying farm fresh eggs at local farms or farmers markets and are finding more information about them on store labels. Is there a difference between eggs you find in a store and those you get from local farms?

Years ago, it seemed that eggs were only different in respect to size (small, medium, large and jumbo) and size of package (a standard dozen or eighteen). Now there are many different labels on eggs in grocery stores and farmers markets or farm stands. There are also a lot of claims made about the differences between the eggs. Consumers should be informed about those different labels mean when they are seeking eggs and if those labels are worth additional money.

When you buy eggs direct from the farm, you have the opportunity to ask questions about how the birds are raised, the living conditions for the birds, and what the birds are fed. Eggs that come to you from the grocery store will have packaging that helps to answer some of those questions through their labels. Unless noted on the packaging, you can assume that most eggs at large grocery stores are coming from large farms where hens are caged. One of these large farms in Michigan, Herbruck’s Poultry Ranch, reports that their operation is closely monitored by the USDA for food safety.

One label that you will see associated with eggs addresses their living conditions (e.g. cage-free, free-range and pasture-raised). This label does not tell you necessarily about what the animals are eating or if they are receiving hormones or antibiotics.

Cage-free:

Most large-scale commercially laid eggs are produced from chickens in cages. According to the University of Florida Extension (UFL Extension), farms use cages to keep birds separated from their feces, to create safer working conditions, and to aid with production cost and efficiency. Birds that are cage-free are usually roaming within a building, but not outside. The costs of management for those conditions are higher which may translate to a higher cost for the eggs. Cage-free does not tell the consumer about other inputs of feed or pharmaceuticals.

Free-range:

UFL Extension describes free range as hens that have access to roam outdoors for a part of the day. These hens produce eggs that are labeled free-range. They may still be confined to keep them safe from predators. Free-range does not tell the consumer about other inputs of feed or pharmaceuticals.

Pasture-raised:

UFL Extension also defines pasture-raised as hens kept in movable chicken coops that are rotated around a field. The coop keeps the birds safe from predation and the elements but allows the birds access to different areas of the field. Pasture-raised birds may consume small insects as well as vegetation growing where the coop is located.

In addition to these labels, egg labels may also make claims about what the hens are fed or treated with. Chickens may or may not be fed from commercial feed which is usually corn- or soy-based. Chicken feeds can also be made of organic ingredients, fortified with nutrients and vitamins, or mixed with other ingredients that change the composition of the egg. Eggs that make claims about cholesterol content or Omega-3 fatty acids may come from chickens that have been given chicken feed that is designed to produce these specific qualities in the egg.

To prevent infection, particularly in large flocks, antibiotics can be included in the chicken feed or water and in some cases, through injection. For a full list of factors affecting the health of chickens, refer to this publication from the University of Florida Extension.

Locally grown food contributes to a healthier local economy. For more information about local and community-based food systems, contact a member of the Community Food Systems team from Michigan State University Extension. For more information about how to keep eggs safe, consult information from the Michigan State University Extension Food Safety Team