As you can see from the above 2018 PBS segment, the farms that “organic” eggs come from can look wildly different. Some hens do indeed get to live a life that looks like something out of a child’s storybook, foraging around in the soil and sun, while others spend most of their lives in barns, taking their “outdoor” time on porches.

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That could change, however, as the Biden administration is reconsidering the previous administration’s interpretation that the USDA doesn’t have the authority to mandate animal welfare conditions. This would “disallow the use of porches as outdoor space in organic production over time.”

It is worth noting, however, that some experts, like the Doctor of Veterinarian Medicine interviewed by PBS for the segment above, argue that keeping hens in enclosures such as porches is safer, as it prevents them from being infected by wild birds.

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If you are concerned about the amount (and type) of space egg-producing hens have, you can consult the Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Egg Scorecard, which rates egg brands with the “organic” label on a scale from one to five eggs based on access to outdoor space, amount of indoor and outdoor space, pasture rotation, and transparency.

Size and grading

Two of the most common and easily understood markings you’ll find on a carton of eggs are its grade and size. The according to the USDA, There are three consumer grades for eggs:

United States (U.S.) Grade AA, A, and B. The grade is determined by the interior quality of the egg and the appearance and condition of the egg shell. Eggs of any quality grade may differ in weight (size). U.S. Grade AA eggs have whites that are thick and firm; yolks that are high, round, and practically free from defects; and clean, unbroken shells.

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Freshness also plays a role in determining the grade, with the USDA simply stating that only the “freshest and highest quality eggs will receive a Grade AA.” All whole eggs sold in grocery stores are almost always Grade A or AA; Grade B eggs are sold a dried, frozen, and dried egg products.

Egg sizes range all the way from “peewee” to “jumbo,” with the size being determined by the average weight of a dozen:

  • Peewee eggs must be a minimum of 15 ounces per dozen.
  • Small eggs must be a minimum of 18 ounces per dozen.
  • Medium eggs must be a minimum of 21 ounces per dozen.
  • Large eggs must be a minimum of 24 ounces per dozen.
  • Extra-large eggs must be a minimum of 27 ounces per dozen.
  • Jumbo eggs must be a minimum of 30 ounces per dozen.

Most eggs sold in grocery stores are large or extra-large, though it is possible to find a medium egg in a carton that is labeled “large,” as long as the average weight of all 12 eggs works out to 24 ounces or greater.

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If all of this seems like too much to remember, you can always build a coop and raise your own hens, or source your eggs from a local farm. The yolks in local farm eggs have a darker color and richer flavor than factory farmed eggs, and come with a nice smug feeling of moral superiority. (My favorite eggs come from my dad’s chickens, but Vital Farms, which is rated very highly on ol’ Organic Egg Scorecard, are a very close second).