The Problem With “Cage-Free” Eggs
By JESS BARRON
By now, you’ve probably realized that the LIVESTRONG.COM team loves eggs. Shelby, our head of Customer Care, even raises her own chickens in her backyard.
As we’ve written many times before, eggs are not only great at helping you lose weight and feel full, but they’re also one of the most economical ways to increase the nutrients in your diet. Eggs are full of vitamin D, vitamin A, vitamin E, omega 3 fatty acids and beta carotene. Plus, the yolks aren’t bad for you!
I’ve always made it a point of pride to buy organic, cage-free eggs. I had read that in the large farms throughout the U.S. (which supply 99 percent of all eggs consumed in this country), the hens are jammed into small indoor cages with less than a half square foot of space each, unable to stand up or turn around.
[Read More: 5 Things I Learned About Raising Chickens]
Consequently, I thought I was making the healthiest and most ethical choice by choosing cage-free, organic eggs. But I was wrong.
If you’re confused when looking at labels on egg cartons, you are not alone. To try to help, we’ve provided definitions of the terms below.
99 percent of eggs sold in the U.S. come from caged chickens living completely indoors who have only 1/2 foot of space each.
A friend whose son was working at a small organic local California farm for the summer gave my husband some eggs. They were all different colors and shapes and the yolks were the most interesting part — they were bright orange! I asked why the yolks of these eggs looked so strikingly different from the high-quality, expensive eggs I was buying at Whole Foods.
“These yolks are so brightly colored because their chickens roam around outside and they are out walking around and exercising in the sunshine, eating all kinds of grasses and insects in addition to the grain that they supply them," our friend told us. "It gives the chickens - and their eggs - a more diverse diet and more nutrition so that the eggs have more vitamins in them."
I asked him why the “cage-free” and “free-range,” organic eggs I bought at Whole Foods didn't have that same color and nutrition level. "Those hens don't actually get to go outdoors," he told me. “The definition of cage-free means that they get a single square foot of space, generally inside a barn. What you need to look for are ‘pasture-raised eggs.’ Those hens go outdoors and are given space to roam."
This was surprising to me and I did more research and found that there was a study and a report published in 2010 by Penn State’s college of Agricultural Sciences that showed that eggs produced by chickens allowed to forage in pastures are higher in some beneficial nutrients.
The lead investigator in the study (Heather Karsten, associate professor of crop production ecology) was quoted saying: “Compared to eggs of the commercial hens, eggs from pastured hens eggs had twice as much vitamin E and long-chain omega-3 fats, more than double the total omega-3 fatty acids, and less than half the ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids.” Another 2010 study from North Carolina State University found that Omega 3 levels were higher at 0.17 percent in the free range eggs vs. 0.14 percent in the cage eggs. However, the study concluded that “this amount of difference between the eggs would not have an impact on human nutrition.”
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Aurora Porter of Vital Farms, a company created in 2007 that now brings humanely raised pastured eggs to U.S. supermarkets, shared information about their farms and this diagram that shows the issue with “cage-free” and “free-range” eggs in the U.S. The hens aren’t even actually given very much space (1/2-square foot for caged hens, one-square foot for cage-free hens, and two-square feet for USDA organic free-range hens). And on top of that — the “cage-free” and “free-range” are not always guaranteed year-round outdoor space.
In contrast, Vital Farms supplies its laying hens each with 108 square feet of space with full year-round outdoor access. Though the USDA has not developed a federal definition for pasture-raised products, you can look for this designation on labels. Many farms, such as Vital Farms, choose to get independently certified according to the standard of Certified Humane, the leading independent non-profit third party considered to be the gold standard in animal welfare certification. You can look for the Certified Humane shield on Vital Farms egg cartons.
This diagram from Vital Farms shows how much space is actually supplied to chickens that are caged, cage-free, cage-free+, and pasture-raised. Share this on Pinterest!
In 2014, California passed Proposition 2, which requires that eggs in the state come from chickens who have enough room to turn around and extend their limbs
What Do All The Labels Mean?
Here’s how the Humane Society of the United States helped to define these terms, with research from the USDA definitions:
CAGE-FREE: Hens laying eggs labeled as “cage-free” are uncaged inside barns, but they generally do not have access to the outdoors. They can engage in many of their natural behaviors such as walking, nesting and spreading their wings. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no mandatory third-party auditing, though producers can choose to get certified according to the standard of Certified Humane, Animal Welfare Approved, American Humane Certified, Food Alliance Certified, and/or United Egg Producers Certified.
FREE-RANGE: While the USDA has defined the meaning of “free-range” for some poultry products, there are no government-regulated standards in “free-range” egg production required to make the claim. Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns and have some degree of outdoor access, but because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access.
Because they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. There is no mandatory third-party auditing, though producers can choose to get certified according to the standards of the independent organizations mentioned in the entry above.
FREE ROAMING: Also known as “free-range,” the USDA has defined this claim for some poultry products, but there are no standards in “free-roaming” egg production. See the description for “FREE-RANGE” above.
PASTURE RAISED: The USDA has not defined the meaning of “pasture-raised” for egg production and therefore, no government-regulated standards in “pasture-raised” egg production are required to make the claim. Typically, pasture-raised hens are kept outdoors for most of the year, on a spacious pasture covered with living plants, and are kept indoors at night for protection.
While in the pasture, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as dust-bathing and foraging. However, because there is no regulation of the term, there are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed and no requirements for the amount of time spent on the pasture, the amount of space per bird, or the quality of the pasture. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. [There is no mandatory third-party auditing, though producers can choose to get certified as Vital Farms is by Certified Humane.]
CERTIFIED ORGANIC: The birds are uncaged inside barns and are required to have outdoor access, but the amount, duration and quality of outdoor access is undefined. They are fed an organic, all-vegetarian diet, free of antibiotics and pesticides, as required by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Organic Program. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted. Compliance is verified through third-party auditing.
VEGETARIAN FED: These birds’ feed does not contain animal byproducts, but this label does not have significant relevance to the animals’ living conditions. In fact, this label often signifies that the hens spend no time outside foraging.
FERTILE: These eggs were laid by hens who lived with roosters, meaning they most likely were not caged.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: After publishing this piece, we received feedback from the American Egg Board which wrote in to say, “First and foremost, the egg industry is committed to continuing to give a safe and humane environment for hens that provide the nation's egg supplies. As the voice of all American egg farmers, the American Egg Board can attest that our producers have worked tirelessly to improve hens’ living conditions and quality of life, and as a result, today’s hens are producing more eggs, are healthier and living longer than ever before due to better health, nutrition and living environments.”
Additionally, the Egg Board says that are pros and cons to every type of hen housing system. They pointed us to findings that say pasture-raised hens have higher mortality - due to increases in predators, feather pecking and cannibalism - and higher probability of contracting diseases (e.g., avian flu, salmonella, etc.) due to lack of protection from disease-carrying wildlife. So, we wanted to include their point of view as well. It’s up to you as the consumer to decide what is right for you and your family, of course.)
3 Weird (and Disturbing) Things I Learned About Chickens:
1. Chickens are omnivores, so they naturally eat insects in addition to grains and grasses, and the nutrients they get from the insects are passed along into the eggs. But chickens who live caged (99% of laying hens in the U.S.) or “cage-free” in a small pen inside a barn never go outdoors and do not walk around and eat insects or ever see the sun. To help offset this and provide protein to the hens’ diets, some factory farmers feed their chickens soy and/or slaughter waste.
2. The breeds of chickens used for factory farm egg production are completely different from those used for meat production. Hens used for meat production are called “broilers” and they are bred specifically for fast growth and enlarged breast muscles. The others are egg-laying hens.
3. Because male chickens can’t lay eggs, the male chicks of the egg-laying breeds all are all killed in factory farms soon after hatching, shortly after their sex is determined. It’s called “chick culling.” They are killed via snapping their necks, asphyxiation by carbon dioxide and/or maceration using a high speed grinder and are then used for dog food or fertilizer. More than 45 million day-old male chicks are killed every year, and because as of late 2014 there are some groups in the Netherlands and Germany who are researching alternative methods to try to make it possible to determine the sex of the chicks before they hatch. This sounds like a more humane idea, right?
Where Do You Get Pasture-Raised Eggs?
You can often find them at your local farmers market. Ask the farmers about how they raise their birds and what they feed them. If you have the space and time, you can also consider raising them in your backyard.
Another place you can find them now is in most grocery stores nationwide. One brand that has a nationwide pasture raised label is Vital Farms Alfresco Eggs Pasture-Raised eggs which are carried in Kroger, Vons, United Supermarkets and Whole Foods — there’s even an egg-finder map to help you find where pastured eggs are carried near you.
PRO TIP: When buying pasture-raised eggs, always check the egg carton to see if they are verified by any third-party independent organizations such as Certified Humane.
Readers - Are you a fan of eggs? What kind do you choose to buy and why? Did you know that “cage-free” hens are not necessarily given the opportunity to roam outside? Do you think this is important to the vitamin content of the eggs? Does it bother you for animal welfare reasons? Did you know that all male baby chicks of egg-laying hens are killed? Do you think this is something that is unethical? What should be done about it?
Jess Barron is Editor-in-Chief of LIVESTRONG.COM. Read some of her other health and fitness articles here. A longtime foodie and fan of farmers markets, Jess particularly loves heirloom tomatoes, fresh figs with burrata cheese, and anything with pumpkin or peanut butter in it! Her love for food fuels her desire to exercise daily. In the summer of 2012, Jess lost 20 pounds in a test group for a new fitness program. Some of her favorite workout routines include walking, running, yoga, P90X, INSANITY and mixed martial arts. Jess's writing can also be found at Poprocks.com. She has appeared on MSNBC's The Most, ABC News Now and XM satellite radio , and her writing has appeared on Wired.com and Yahoo.