A trip to the grocery store for eggs can be overwhelming. The different labels raise ethical, health and confusing questions for you. What’s cage-free vs free-range eggs? What happened to the standards your ancestors used on the farm growing up? We’ve got these answers for you.
The regular carton of eggs at a grocery store is usually made up of eggs laid by hens confined in battery cages. This means the caged hens only have the space of a single sheet of paper. The Humane Society of the United States says these are some of the worst abused animals in agribusiness.
They can’t perch, nest or even do their dustbathing. This means they can’t properly groom themselves and even ward off diseases. Many people morally oppose this type of raising of hens.
The Big Debate
Cage-free vs free-range eggs is a huge debate among millions of people in the United States. Many people agree hens shouldn’t be in tiny confined spaces. In fact, many states have gone to cage-free and free-range chickens. There are bills being passed across the nation requiring egg producers to give hens more space.
In one bill, industrial egg farmers could not confine hens to any area smaller than one square foot per hen. Though most people agree hens should have more space to lay their eggs, when it comes to cage-free vs free-range, it seems many people have differing opinions. There are pros and cons to each side, but it’s up to each consumer to decide which is best in their eyes.
What does it mean to be “cage-free” for a chicken? The USDA regulates cage-free hens. Basically it simply means the hens do not live in cages. This doesn’t mean they’re specified to live in a certain amount of space or that they even see the outside of a barn. It means they live outside of a tiny cage.
The United Egg Producers (UEP) Certified cage-free mark states that “cage-free” means that the chickens are able to roam vertically and horizontally in their space. They must have at least one square foot of floor space.
The American Humane Certified program says that cage-free means these hens must have at least 1.25 square feet of floor space. They also need to have access to nesting boxes and a perch.
Different Cage-Free Systems
Cage-free hens usually have different types of homes. Overall, they’re all fed the same thing on a natural diet. They are usually cared for in the same way, they just live in different types of cage-free homes. They get to roost, bathe and nest.
One thing many people don’t know is there are different types of cage-free systems on different farms. Some farmers go for multi-tier aviaries. These are like barns with different floors so the chickens can go up and down the different heights.
Some have barn systems which include a large flock of hens that get an entire barn to themselves. They have food and water along with perches, nests and sawdust for scratching. They get about triple the amount of space given to hens in battery cages.
The main idea behind hens not having tight confinement areas is they are able to roam freely within a larger space than a tiny cage. They get to exhibit their natural behaviors.
Free-range chickens are also regulated by the USDA. The hens must be given access to outdoors. The rule says these hens must have access to a screened-in porch with a minimum of two square feet of outdoor space per hen.
It never states they have to actually go outside. Some larger chicken producers take this to mean they can even just have small paved patches of ground or open windows. For most farmers, however; free-range means the chickens are able to roam freely.
Outdoor Access And Recreation
Free-range chickens usually have true access to the outdoors. They’re able to roam freely in large enclosures. They often roam along real pastures and farms. They can hunt and peck for extra food.
Some chickens actually hunt for their own food during the day. Many farmers even give them hay bales and farm equipment so they can create their own little homes and recreation areas. They like to climb on this old equipment and bathe themselves.
Effects on Price
One of the biggest differences in cage-free vs free-range chickens is pricing. The most inexpensive eggs at the store are usually the conventional cages. It’s the least expensive way to produce eggs. There is not as much labor involved in this type of raising hens.
The hens also do not eat as much. The more space a hen has to live, to move and to do their natural things, the more it costs to raise them. This means these eggs are usually more expensive to produce.
So Who Wins In Cage Free vs Free Range?
Is there a real winner when it comes to cage-free vs free-range chickens? When you get down to the exact definition, the titles are just the environment in which which the hens are housed. The consumer may not even know to what extent each farmer went to ensure the living styles were “good” for the chicken.
The consumer may never know if they’re making the most ethical decision. The USDA also admits there is no scientific data saying there is any nutritional difference in the nutrition of the eggs that come from different housing situations. This means it’s up to each consumer to decide which is best for their household.
Cage-Free vs Free Range Stickers
There are a million different stickers on all of the different cartons at your grocery store. So how do you know which stickers to even check for? You have to look for certain logos to ensure you’re getting cage-free or free-range eggs.
The Animal Welfare Approved logo is a white sun with blue rays over a green pasture. The AWA ensures producers do not cut the beaks of their chickens and they don’t starve their birds. Another well-known logo is the Certified Humane logo.
Certified Humane bans forced molting of their chickens. Both of these logos ensure their chickens do have outdoor access. One problem with logos and stickers is they often won’t tell you how the chickens were raised. These labels include natural, fertile, farm-fresh, and omega-3. Read the labels carefully before you decide which eggs to buy based on your ethical values.
Other Types of Egg Production
Pasture raised eggs can also be found in many stores. If a label says pasture-raised, these hens usually have special living conditions. They must be placed on actual ground or grass with living vegetation for six hours each day. They are not regulated by the USDA. They are given that designation by the Humane Farm Animal Care’s Certified Humane program.
They must have at least 1.8 square feet of indoor floor space each. They also must have four square feet of outdoor space each. Like other types of hens, they also have access to nesting boxes and perching places.
Organic eggs are produced by hens with specific diets. It means they were not fed any antibiotics. These hens must live in cage-free homes and/or a free-range home. They cannot be forced to molt for better production either.
Where To Buy
Most people buy their eggs at the supermarket, but if you want special types of eggs, you might need to look at your local farmers’ market or a nearby farm. Many times this means you know exactly how your eggs are made. You don’t need to worry about cage-free vs free-range eggs because you’ll have all of the information right in front of you to help make your decision.
Many times a local farm will rotate their cattle and chicken on the same land. This means the hens get to pick out their own little bugs from the cow’s manure. They get important nutrients and help the flies stay away.
Many of these chickens get to eat insects and grass. This is something unheard of in the land where chickens are raised in battery cages. These eggs may even have higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids. Many people swear cage-free and free-range eggs even taste better.
Overall, cage-free vs free-range chickens are raised in different, yet the same ways. They are both regulated on a stricter base than chickens raised in battery cages. They both have pros and cons because there are ways farmers or producers can bend the rules.
It is up to each consumer to decide cage-free vs free-range, and which is the best decision for their home. The options may seem overwhelming, but a little research can go a long way when it comes to feeding your home with the best eggs for you.