Poll: Egg labels hard to crack

“Pasture-raised eggs”: Do you look for that description when shopping?

Fewer than 1 in 4 respondents looked for that phrase, according to a poll of 670 Americans conducted in May for Vital Farms, an Austin, Texas-based company that describes itself as the “only national supplier of pasture-raised eggs in the country.” What’s more, the consumers who responded to the survey ascribed the benefits of “pasture-raised” to other labels, such as “cage-free” or “free-range.”

Why should we care that consumers don’t know what pasture-raised means in a survey by a company that has pasture-raised eggs as its selling point? Maybe there’s something here beyond the self-promotion. When buying eggs at the grocery store, all the brands, claims and price variations can be confusing.

The survey shows that consumers confuse cage-free and free-range with pasture-raised, according to a news release from Vital Farms.

“The majority believe they are buying pasture-raised, and the reality is vastly different,” says Dan Brooks, the company’s director of marketing communications, in the release.

Clearly, this difference in perception matters to a company like Vital Farms and its network of 52 family farms working to produce those pasture-raised eggs. But should it matter to you? Brooks claims pasture-raised eggs are better quality and better for you.

Dr. Philip Hagen, consultant in the preventive medicine division at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., says that may be true in theory, but regular eggs from the grocery store have most, if not all, of the health benefits of pricier eggs raised under specific conditions.

There is some argument, though, for the safety of these eggs. Paul Shapiro, a spokesman for The Humane Society of the United States, says studies show that rates of salmonella infection, a bacteria that can trigger food-borne illness in humans, decrease when the quality of care given the egg-laying chickens improves. And a chicken living a pasture-raised existence has a better life than its caged cousins, he says.

“Those birds suffer enormously,” Shapiro says of caged birds, which lay roughly 9 out of 10 eggs we eat.

That 10th egg is the so-called specialty egg, Shapiro adds, which includes pasture-raised, cage-free and free-range chickens. There are differences in what those terms mean, but all three represent a better life for chickens, he says.

So, what do these terms all mean? That can be difficult to suss out.

There’s no official definition for pasture-raised. Vital Farms points to the standard followed by Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit based in Herndon, Va., “dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter,” according to its website.

In order for eggs to be labeled pasture-raised according to HFAC requirements, a producer must, among other things, provide 108 square feet of outdoor space per bird and rotate fields. “The hens must be outdoors year-round, with mobile or fixed housing where the hens can go inside at night to protect themselves from predators, or for up to two weeks out of the year, due only to inclement weather,” the HFAC website states.

“Cage-free means what it says, the birds are not in cages,” Shapiro says. “There’s a lot more space, the hens can walk around and spread their wings. They don’t go outside and there can be tens of thousands of birds in a barn.”

Free-range birds have access to the outdoors, but what that means — and how much — is not uniformly defined, Shapiro says.

“It’s very hard to educate consumers about anything because you can put anything on a label,” says Adele Douglass, HFAC executive director.

What to do? There are handy glossaries useful for understanding egg cartons on websites from the Humane Society (humanesociety.org) and the Mayo Clinic (mayoclinic.org). Then consider this advice from Hagen, who is also associate medical director of the Mayo Clinic Healthy Living Program.

“If you have a specific concern — antibiotics, hormones, stressed warehouse-raised hens producing less healthy eggs, etc. — do your homework on labels, expect to pay more, recognize that there are a lot of labeling gimmicks that are used, but on average that these eggs are likely to be what they say they are,” he wrote in an email. “Enjoy those eggs in healthy amounts, and you are likely to be avoiding what you are concerned about.”