It's All About the Space
Cartons labeled cage free mean the hens are not in cages but are enclosed in a barn.
Free range hens are allowed 2 square feet to roam and may get some outdoor access.
Pasture raised hens have 108 square feet to roam and love mostly outside. Pasture raised hens have the opportunity to flap their wings, peck the ground for insects, and spend up to six hours outside each day and "bunk" indoors each night. These eggs are available at farmer's markets and some supermarkets. A 2007 Mother Earth News Study found pasture raised hens to have 1/3 less cholesterol, 1/4 less saturated fat, 2/3 more vitamin A, 2 times more omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times more vitamin E, and 7 times more beta carotene.
It's All About the Food
Omega-3 labels indicate the hen's feed included foods high in Omega-3s such as flaxseed, marine algae, or canola.
Vegetarian fed labels indicate the hen was not fed any animal byproducts.
USDA Organic labels indicate the hen's feed is grown without synthetic fertilizers, fungicides, or pesticides.
Eggs labeled Hormone-Free are unnecessary. Hens that are laying eggs are not given hormones. This is a marketing tool.
Eggs marked Natural are unnecessary. Eggs are natural. This is another marketing tool.
How Are the Birds Treated?
American Humane Certified label includes producers of cage free birds. It prohibits forced molting but allows beak cutting.
Animal Welfare Approved label limits flock size to 500 birds to allow generous space for foraging and and ranging outdoors. It prohibits forced molting and beak cutting.
Certified Organic label prohibits cages and the use of antibiotics and requires organic food and access to the outdoors. It does allow forced molting and beak cutting.
For more information read Delicious Living's article Understanding lingo on egg cartons by Jessie Shafer and TakePart.