What the Egg Carton Really Means

3 minute read

If you’re not confused about which eggs to buy, perhaps you’re not paying close enough attention to the cold case at the supermarket. The growing number of varieties and label claims–from the seemingly clear “free-range” to the more puzzling “pasture-raised”–can overwhelm even a savvy, health-conscious shopper. And as of January 2015, there’s a new label popping up on cartons: “California Shell Egg Food Safety Compliant.”

In a landmark move, California has mandated that all eggs produced or sold in the state come from hens that have enough room to flap their wings without bumping feathers. “CA SEFS Compliant” is the seal that shows that the eggs you’re buying adhere to those rules. Even if you live outside the Golden State, you’ll likely start seeing the label on cartons across the country.

What’s tricky about many of the labels on egg cartons, however, is that unlike “CA SEFS” and “USDA Organic,” many of the claims have no legal definition–which means you aren’t necessarily getting what you think you’re paying extra for.

There’s finally consensus that, yes, your favorite breakfast food really is good for you. To find out which labels are worth shelling out for, we turned to food and farm experts. Here’s a guide to seven key claims you’re likely to see on egg cartons.


Eggs from hens whose feed has been boosted with flax, algae or fish oil contain more fatty acids. But to load up on omega-3s, says dietitian Keri Gans, “you are probably better off eating lots of fish, nuts and seeds.”


One of the only claims with real teeth, this refers to eggs from uncaged hens that have outdoor access and a pesticide-free diet. Farms are checked regularly for compliance.


Hens are fed corn and soy but no animal protein. Since hens will naturally chow down on bugs, this claim may also imply that they have no outdoor foraging access, says the Humane Society.


It’s not necessarily as pampering as it sounds. “They can be packed in as tightly as people on the subway, but they are not in a cage,” says Gans. There’s no rule about how much space the hens get, but companies can receive voluntary certification.


Cage-free, plus a door to the outside world. It’s up to the hen if she wants to cross through. Free-range poultry has a legal definition, but when it comes to eggs, there’s none.


Hens have enough room to lie, stand, turn around and spread their wings without touching their fellow fowl. State farm inspectors check for compliance. Violations are misdemeanors.


There is no legal definition here either, but some third-party labels, like “Certified Humane,” ensure that hens get 108 sq. ft. of pasture for part of the day.

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Write to Mandy Oaklander and Anita Hamilton at mandy.oaklander@time.com