I've been confused by egg labels for some time now and decided to put on my "detective hat" to conduct an investigation.
After all, eggs range in price from $.79 to $5.00/dozen (and I want to know what exactly I'm paying for). They can be jumbo, large, extra large, or medium. They are sometimes white, sometimes brown, occasionally blue or speckled.
My research led me to these basic definitions:
Free Range - USDA regulations apply only to the chickens and indicate that the animal has been allowed at least limited access to the outside. The USDA regulations do not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside. Free range does not imply in any way that the hens were fed any differently than on normal commercial farms.
Cage Free - This simply means that the hens are not kept in cages, though there are no federal regulations to govern care beyond that.
Hormone/Antibiotic Free - Hormone use is not allowed in any commercial U.S. egg production so this label isn't of particular importance. Antibiotics are used rarely and only for sick birds.
Omega-3 - These are eggs that are produced by hens fed a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids.
Vegetarian-Fed - These are eggs that come from chickens that have a strictly vegetarian diet. This designation does not indicate anything about the living conditions of the birds. Some experts dispute that, when chickens are left to graze on their own, they are not vegetarians. They eat worms, insects, and lizards in addition to seeds and plants.
Organic - The chickens are fed organic feed, have access to the outdoors, and cannot be raised in cages. It is prohibited to feed these chickens with animal byproducts or GMO crops.
Pastured - These hens are raised on pasture (instead of being kept in confinement) and are allowed to eat a natural diet of seeds, insects, etc. This term is not regulated by any governmental agency.
Local - Eggs that are locally produced may or may not be cage-free, free-range, organic, or vegetarian-fed. That said, the advantage of local eggs is that you have the opportunity to talk directly with farmers about their process. You may even be able to visit the farm and see how the chickens live and are fed.
Brown Versus White - The color of the egg depends on the breed of the chicken, but the nutrients are the same.
Grade AA, Grade A, or Grade B - AA is the highest quality. Then, A. Followed by B.
It strikes me that almost all of the labels are not regulated and may not mean as much as they seem. My "ideal" eggs would be from chickens who live out of doors on a natural diet. I'm not as concerned about Omega-3 additives in the diet since we consume fish and nuts regularly.
Based on my research, I will likely search for LOCAL eggs above other labels. That way, I can talk directly to the "source" (not to mention that it's always a good thing to stimulate the local economy and reduce environmental impact).
If all else fails, it seems that the "organic" label is the most trustworthy.
What "kind" of eggs do you buy? Which labels are most important to you and why?