Delving into the differences between cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised eggs may be enough to give you a headache, but the egg itself is deceptively simple. What isn’t there to love about eggs? Complete little packets of protein and nutrients, eggs fulfill an amazing array of functions in almost every way you could possibly want to cook them. From a simple scramble to the building blocks of pancakes, quiches, pastas, and even cocktail foams, the aptly titled “Incredible Edible Egg” is a staple many of us can’t live without.
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However, in the last few years, eggs have been getting a lot more press with the increased focus on animal welfare and healthy eating. Videos of chickens being abused or confined to cramped cages have caused an uproar among both animal rights activists and consumers who believe that animals raised for consumption should be treated humanely. This increased pressure for humane standards has spilled over to the food and restaurant industry at large: It’s more and more common to walk into a fast casual restaurant and see the egg dishes on their menus re-labeled to say specifically that they are “made with cage-free eggs.”
So what does that mean, exactly? Does “cage-free” mean that the chickens are happily frolicking around a large field? Is cage-free the same as free-range? Is pasture-raised better than anything else? Or are these all just empty marketing terms designed to falsely reassure the egg-eating public? It turns out the answer is quite multifaceted, and understanding the differences in terminology can make a huge difference between what you think you’re eating and what you’re actually eating.
Cage-Free Eggs: Quite simply put, eggs from hens labeled as cage-free are just that: those that do not live in cages. The uproar from undercover videos came from images of chickens confined in small cages, unable to walk or move around, lined up in barns or shelters without access to the outdoors. For the most part, labeling a chicken as cage-free simply just takes away the cage from that environment. However, eggs packed in USDA grademarked consumer packages labeled as cage-free must meet specific standards: The eggs must be “produced by hens housed in some type of building or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle.” Note, however, that these USDA regulations do not include any requirements for outdoor space, or even exactly how much space each chicken should have within the enclosed area. They also don’t regulate what the birds are eating which means they likely feast on a soy and corn diet, or something similar.
If additional standards such as space requirements are important to you, you may want to shop for eggs whose packages have additional labels from independent certifying organizations. One such organization, Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), developed the Certified Humane® labeling standards and focuses on more specific humane standards for all kinds of farm animals, does their own farm inspections, and takes the USDA requirements for cage-free eggs a few steps further. Cage-free chickens that are labeled as Certified Humane® must have at least 1.5 square feet of space per chicken in the barn or enclosure to roam around. Unlike the USDA requirements which specify no minimum amount of space per chicken, this standard helps to limit the number of birds that can reside in an enclosed area so that they are not overly packed in. In addition, hens labeled with the Certified Humane® stamp of approval must also meet many other chicken-welfare standards such as air quality, light, perch availability, and more.
Free-Range Eggs: Cage-free and free-range are often used interchangeably, but it’s important to note that there are specific differences between these terms. The main difference is that free-range birds must have access to the outside, meaning they can leave their shed or enclosure. Per USDA labeling requirements, egg packages that have the USDA grademark and are labeled as free-range “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.” Note that it’s the same description as the cage-free requirements, but with the additional caveat of having access to the outdoors. However, once again the USDA does not designate any sort of minimum or maximum size for the outdoor area. That means that there could be a large yard for all the chickens to roam around in, but it could also mean a small, semi-enclosed concrete space, like a porch, that only a small fraction of the birds can access at any one time, and only if they are able and willing to reach the outdoors. That means that despite the availability of outdoor space, there’s no guarantee that the hens will ever see the outdoors on a daily basis.
Again, however, any free-range eggs that include the Certified Humane® label must meet additional stringent regulations in order to be classified as free-range as opposed to cage-free. In their definition, the hens are still housed in shelters but must have at least two square feet per bird of outdoor space in addition to their minimum required indoor space. This ensures that, unlike a small fenced in area, the chickens can all have enough room to roam outside should they want to do so together. The birds also must have access to the outdoors for a minimum of six hours per day during the daytime, allowing them not only enough space but enough time to roam.
Pasture-Raised Eggs: Generally, when someone wants to buy eggs that came from chickens running free on a field, foraging for grubs and insects, pasture-raised chickens are what they are envisioning. And unfortunately, true pasture-raised eggs can be much harder to find unless you shop at a farmer’s market or specialty food store. This is because the USDA does not have any sort of regulation for pasture-raised products, so you’re likely not going to find a carton of eggs at your grocery store that has both a pasture-raised label and the USDA grademark. That doesn’t mean that pasture raised chickens don’t exist, though. Continue to look for certifications such as the Certified Humane® label on your eggs that claim to be pasture-raised. To meet that Certified Humane® milestone, the farm must have a minimum of 2.5 acres per 1,000 birds, and the chicken must be outdoors for a minimum of six hours per day every day, in addition to many other standards. Note that these chickens must be outdoors for six hours a day, versus the free-range chickens just having access to the outdoors for a minimum of six hours per day. To have a farm that meets those standards—in addition to all of the other housing, perching, food, and environmental standards—takes a lot of space and work, which means that pasture-raised eggs are harder to find and generally more expensive. However, if you feel strongly about having eggs from hens with the best quality of life, it would be worth your while to seek out pasture-raised eggs.
However, you choose your eggs, just remember that standards for each classification are not fully regulated, so it’s possible to see eggs labeled as free-range or pasture-raised without any sort of verification or certification on the carton. There are also other regulating bodies beyond HFAC that provide their own strict standards. The best you can do is dig a little deeper into the producer’s welfare standards and better yet, ask your local farmer how they raise their eggs so that you feel comfortable with your purchase.