You go to the grocery store and head to the back, where all the essentials are – including eggs. There you find a dozen different cartons, but really —
What’s the difference between cage-free and free-range eggs?
And, (perhaps more importantly) —
Is the extra price for either of these two options worth paying, over normal eggs?
“Normal” Eggs: AKA NOT Cage-Free or Free Range Eggs
A majority of egg producers in the United States utilize a large-scale production mentality when it comes to tending egg-producing chickens. These chickens are crammed into tiny little cages, often where they can barely move. The more chickens they can cram into their hen houses, the more eggs they can produce and the more money they make.
Great for the farmers, but a horrible existence for the chickens.
They are feed low-cost feed, which results in low nutrient-density eggs. To make matters worse, these chickens are given antibiotics to fight diseases that end up in their eggs… and on your plate!
What are Cage-Free Eggs?
As more and more consumers learned about the deplorable conditions these chickens are raised in, some chicken producers started cage-free eggs.
Gone, for these chickens, are the tiny individual cages! – YAY!
But, they are often replaced with just large pens, overcrowded to the point that the chicken density may be greater than when they were in cages! – BOO!
There is no requirements of what “cage-free” means, other than they are not in individual cages. So, these poor chickens still never see the light of day. Are now wing-to-wing with all of the other chickens, and are still, for all intents and purposes, in cages.
Plus, there’s no requirement as to what they are fed. They often are still fed the low quality feed, And, they are still typically given antibiotics, to prevent the spread of disease, given their extremely close quarters.
So, for those of us who thought – “Oh, good! Those poor chickens don’t have to live in cages anymore, if I buy these!” – and thought we were encouraging cruelty-free conditions… we were sadly mistaken.
What are Free Range Eggs? USDA Guidelines
This brings us to free range eggs. Those must be better, right?!
Well, that depends.
If you go by the USDA guidelines of “free range” this means chickens only have to have “access” to the outdoors. This access can be a small whole in the wall of the hen house, where they can only put their head through – not their whole body. And (and this one is really important), there is no minimum space requirement!
So, imagine that overcrowded, “cage-free” hen house, with a few holes in the wall where chickens can stick their heads out and long for escape… by the USDA standards, THAT’S “free range.”
But, there’s hope!
Certified Humane Free Range Eggs
Human Farm Animal Care (HFAC) has set guidelines for their definition of “free range,” and it begins to sound more like what most non-chicken farmers would think it should mean!
To be HFAC certified free range, the chickens must:
- Be outdoors, weather permitting, at least 6 hours a day. (Their whole body, not just their heads.)
- And, they must have at least 2 square feet per bird.
That sounds a little small, doesn’t it? But, it’s significantly more room than caged chickens or cage-free chickens get!
In addition, in their barn, they must:
- Have enough space that the air quality is less than 10 parts per million of ammonia,
- 15% of the floor space must have litter, so the chickens can give themselves dust baths,
- They must have at least 6 inches of perch per bird,
- At least 20% of the perches must be elevated, and
- All animal byproducts in their food are prohibited, as well as antibiotics.
Now, this sounds like a much more humane way to raise these hard-working chickens!
Pasture-Raised Eggs: The Ultimate Egg-Laying Experience
HFAC has gone one step further, to what I personally was thinking when I first heard the term “cage-free”…
Pasture raised eggs.
Pasture raised eggs are chickens doing what chickens do best – being out in the grass, scratching up the soil, eating bugs, just being chickens!
The requirements for this certification are much more stringent. They include:
- A maximum of 1,000 birds per 2.5 acres – that’s 108 square feet per bird!
- The hens must be allowed to be outside all year long, but with housing where they can go inside when they want, due to weather or predators.
- They can be placed in these houses by the farmer for a maximum of only two weeks of the year, due to only the most extreme weather.
- All of other HFAC rules apply.
These pasture raised eggs are the most humane way to raise chickens. Plus, they have the most nutritious eggs, since they are out ‘in the wild’ eating what nature intended them to eat.
Although these eggs due cost significantly more than the traditional eggs, they’re not only good for your body (with all of the nutrient), but they’re good for your soul, because you know these chickens that provided your eggs are being treated right and living long, full, healthy lives.