On March 12, 2018, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) announced that it would withdraw a new rule that would have strengthened requirements for ensuring the health and well-being of animals on organic farms.

The new rule would have required outdoor access for all animals, including laying hens. By withdrawing the rule, the USDA’s decision means that chickens on organic farms can remain cramped indoors with tens of thousands of other birds with only token access to the outdoors.

But just because the USDA Organic seal doesn’t indicate chickens were able to go outdoors doesn’t mean you have no way of distinguishing one egg carton from another. Other labeling claims and seals can tell you a lot about how the birds were raised, including whether they were likely cooped up inside or were able to go outdoors on well-managed pasture.

The USDA Organic seal on your egg carton is still meaningful if you’re interested in supporting a more environmentally sustainable way of farming. Regardless of how they are housed, chickens eat a lot of grain, and organic farms have to feed their animals organic feed. That means the grain was grown on farms that are prohibited from using the herbicides and insecticides that are routinely used on conventional farms.

If you’d like to buy eggs from farms that let their hens go outdoors, look for these additional claims and seals on the egg carton:

Animal Welfare Approved

The standards behind this label are strong and comprehensive in addressing animal welfare for farm animals. The label’s standards require that animals are raised on family farms with adequate and well-managed space indoors and outdoors, that promote animal health and allow the animals to engage in their natural behaviors. For laying hens, it means chickens have access to an outdoor foraging area that allows them to engage in their natural scratching-and-pecking behaviors. Read more.

“Pasture-raised”

Unless you can visit the farm to see for yourself whether the chickens are really out on pasture, be sure to look for a seal that provides verification for a “pasture-raised” claim. “Animal Welfare Approved” always requires pasture for chickens. And “Certified Humane Raised and Handled” and “American Humane Certified” require plenty of space for the birds when the egg carton also has a “pasture-raised” claim. Read more

“Free range”

As with “pasture raised,” don’t rely on this claim alone, unless you know the farm and can see the outdoor area. Producers can make a “free range” claim as long as the birds are given access to an outdoor area, but there are no additional requirements to ensure that the outdoor area is large enough or accessible for all birds. If an egg carton has a “free range” claim, also look for the American Humane Certified seal, which means the birds have an outdoor area with plenty of outdoor space per bird. Read more