Farm-raised. Cage-free. Hormone-free.

What do all of those statement mean on a package of chicken or eggs? The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) regulates the language you see on food packaging. Sometimes it can be confusing for shoppers. Due to  consumer’s desire to know how their food was raised, terms like cage-free, humanely raised, natural, or antibiotic-free, seem to be on trend.

But what do they really mean? Since the USDA oversees all of these terms, there are actual definitions for each of them.

A Glossary of Chicken Terms

  • Farm-Raised. All chickens in the US are farm-raised. Many are raised in spacious barns equipped with temperature control systems. Barns helps protect chickens from predators (foxes, raccoons, birds of prey)
  • Antibiotic Claims. Technically, all chicken you buy is “antibiotic-free”. Farmers do use antibiotics, when necessary, to treat sick animals. However, federal law mandates that the antibiotics must be cleared through the bird’s system before they are harvested. Chickens that are raised without the use of any antibiotics may be labeled as “No Antibiotics Ever” or something similar.
  • Hormones. It’s illegal to use any type of hormone or steroid in raising chickens. Despite the “hormone-free” labeling you may see, no chicken you buy will have ever had added hormones.
  • Roaster. A roaster chicken is a larger bird, usually around 5-6 pounds.
  • Broilers. These are young chickens raised for meat and the most common type you’ll find at your grocery store.
  • Cage-Free. All broiler chickens are raised in large open barns, and are technically cage-free.
  • Pasture-raised. These chickens are raised primarily outdoors, on pasture.
  • Free-Range. Chickens that have access to the outdoors are labeled free-range. All USDA Organic chicken is free-range, but not all free-range chicken is organic.
  • Organic. This is a USDA seal that means the chicken has bee only fed certified organic feed and is free-range.  Most of the practices are the same for chickens raised organically and conventionally. This label defines the agricultural practice, and does not indicate any higher standard in terms of safety, quality or nutrition.

Our backyard hens

What’s on the Egg Carton

  • Cage-Free. Hens are in an open building where they can roam, and have roosts or perches, and nesting areas. Conventional barns. Include enclosures for each hen that serves as their nesting space.
  • Free-Range. These hens have access to outdoors with no enclosures. In addition to their feed, they can forage on grasses and insects.
  • Certified Organic. Free-range hens raised on organic feed, with access to the outdoors.
  • Non-GMO. There are no genetically modified eggs, but some brands may use the term for marketing purposes. Even if genetically modified material is in the hen feed, none of the genetically modified material is passed into the egg.
  • Sell-by Date. This serves to keep eggs circulated on the shelf. Eggs can be safety eaten 2-3 weeks after this date.

Eggs: Nutrition Powerhouse

An excellent source of choline, lutein and zeaxanthin, eggs provide important nutrients for brain health. They’re also high in vitamin D. One egg provides 6 grams of protein and only about 72 calories. They are also economical.

Remember – Cage-free labeling has nothing to do with nutritional benefit, but instead refers to how the hens were farmed. Some people may feel that brown eggs are “healthier” for some reason. The color of the egg shell has nothing to do with nutrition. Rather, it is due to the breed of chicken. Hens with red feathers and red ear lobes lay brown eggs.

Eggs are an economical protein source, and can be enjoyed every week. All of the eggs you see at the grocery store are safe and nutritious.