Navigating the egg carton label maze can be challenging for consumers

Cage Free. Organic. Free-range. Hand-gathered. All-natural. Antibiotic-free. Hormone-free. No hormones added. Vegetarian-fed. Pasteurized. Grade AA. Jumbo.

These are examples of different labels that can appear on an egg carton. Some labels are required by law. Some have specific guidelines for use, and some labels are left to the judgment of the producers and marketers.

The only labels required on an egg carton are the grade, packing location and if they were packed under USDA supervision, according to Jo Manhart, director of the Missouri Egg Council. But mandatory labels are not the only labels found on egg cartons. If you looked on the grocery shelves of Clover’s Natural Market or other grocery stores in Columbia, you would see egg cartons with labels such as “hand-gathered,” “antibiotic-free,” “no hormones added,” and “all-natural.” According to Manhart, labels provide information that producers think consumers want and need to know.

“The marketplace will dictate what you do,” Manhart said. “If the marketplace won’t support it, then it will disappear on its own.”

Noah Earle is the grocery manager at one of the Clover’s Natural Markets in Columbia, Mo. He said Clover’s goal is to provide mostly local eggs from smaller producers who do not feed medicated feed. They do not sell any certified organic eggs. The three main egg suppliers for the Broadway Clover’s are Stanton Brothers, Weiler Egg Farm and Chicken Shack eggs from Big H Farm. The Chicken Shack eggs meet most organic criteria but do not have certification.

In a month, Earle estimated this Clover’s sells approximately 150 dozen eggs. Chicken Shack eggs sell the fewest eggs at Clover’s because supply is not as consistent due to the operation’s small size. Another difference lies in price. While Stanton Brothers and Weiler Egg Farm eggs sell for $2.99 per dozen, Chicken Shack eggs sell for $4.99, which Earle said is lower than the normal price markup for organic products.

“They (organic producers) are entitled to ask for more money, because it costs more,” Manhart said.

Earle said he has considered organically raising some laying hens for when supplies drop during the winter, but it was not financially feasible.

Dustin Stanton is the co-owner of Stanton Brothers Eggs, located in Centralia, Mo. Stanton is a junior majoring in agricultural business at MU. Stanton Brothers is an egg laying business that currently has 16,000 chickens.

There are various production practices in egg production that affect how cartons can be labeled. Stanton described the following.

On either end of the spectrum, there is free roam and caged. In the free roam method, there are no fences or boundaries and the chickens roam free. There is a shelter so chickens can be protected from weather. This method is more common in California than it is in Missouri, according to Stanton. At the other end of the spectrum is the caged method, where there are cages in buildings that are usually 12”x12”.

In the middle is free range and cage-free. There is free range, where a boundary exists but chickens have access to the outside. Then there is cage free, which usually means the chickens are enclosed in a building but are able to freely move about.

Stanton Brothers eggs are currently considered free range, and they are currently the largest free-range chicken farm in the country. However, they are in the process of switching to cage free.

“It is way more efficient and a lot less labor,” Stanton said.

The new barn they are building will be completely automated. The brothers will be able to feed the chickens from their iPhones. Stanton plans to continue growing his business in the future.

Two other labels present on many cartons are “No Hormones Added” and “Antibiotic Free.” Stanton, Manhart and Earle all said these labels are irrelevant. According to the USDA, no producer may use hormones nor sell eggs from hens treated with antibiotics. Because of the nature of how antibiotics must be given to hens, Stanton says it does not make economic sense to treat their hens with antibiotics. To treat hens with antibiotics rather than quarantining the hen requires all chickens in vicinity of the sick hen to be treated as well, and then eggs from those hens cannot be sold for 14 days. So, a profit loss is imminent.

“As a seller, it is good for those labels to be on there,” Stanton said concerning labels about hormones and antibiotics. “As a consumer, it can be misleading.”

Stanton said that if a seller does not have those labels, a consumer may assume those products have antibiotics or hormones when that is actually not possible, which could hurt sales.

Stanton Brothers have 40 weekly outlets and businesses they sell their eggs to, but Stanton likes selling at the Columbia Farmer’s Market because he can talk to consumers and explain his practices and the facts about the different labels. He said consumers are willing to listen and learn. Many consumers assume they know what certain labels mean or imply, and may be surprised when they discover the real meaning.

“To me, it’s not easy to tell the difference between eggs, but if a consumer feels there is an advantage in paying more, they will,” Manhart said.

Definitions of most labels found on egg cartons may be found on the Egg Labeling Guide provided by the Egg Nutrition Center overseen by the USDA at

http://www.eggnutritioncenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/04/ENC-Egg-Labeling-Guide-PDF-proof.pdf.

Tessa Chambers

About the Author Tessa Chambers

Going to the University of Missouri has always been a dream of Tessa Chambers. She feels that the University of Missouri gives her the ability to not only become an amazing journalist through the journalism program, but also an amazing agricultural journalist through the science and agricultural journalism program that we offer here at Mizzou. It has opened so many doors for her and she cannot wait to start her life in agricultural public relations once she graduates. “Agriculture is a huge part of my life and this passion, along with a passion for interacting with people is what caused me to pursue a degree in science and agricultural Journalism,” Chambers said.