VZ 279: Cage-Free vs. Free-Range vs. Pasture-Raised Eggs : Demystifying Egg Labeling

Demystifying Egg Labels

As we’ve discussed many times on the show, food labeling needs a BIG TIME redo. Trying to decipher labels at the grocery store can be an exercise in frustration. Many companies intentionally try to mislead consumers, and the egg industry is no exception. Cage-free vs. free-range vs. pasture-raised? What do they all mean? 

While vegans do not eat eggs, many vegetarians and reducetarians do, and many want to buy eggs that come from a humane farm where animal care is a priority. For this reason it is important to understand the meaning of keywords found on egg cartons, including free-range, cage-free, certified organic, Animal Care Certified, and others. In addition to concern over animal welfare, the ways hens are raised and cared for can also impact the environment and the nutritional value of the eggs themselves. Let’s define some of these labels. 

eggs labeling

Cage-Free vs. Free-Range vs. Pasture-Raised Eggs

Cage-free eggs This label is certified by the USDA, who guarantees that “eggs packed in USDA grade-marked consumer packages labeled as cage-free are laid by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water. Cage-free systems vary from farm-to-farm, and can include multi-tier aviaries. They must allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors and include enrichments such as scratch areas, perches and nests. Hens must have access to litter, protection from predators and be able to move in a barn in a manner that promotes bird welfare.”

Because 90% of eggs in the US come from hens confined to a 67 square inch space their entire lives, being out of this type of battery cage might seem like a step in the right direction as far as animal welfare is concerned. However, there still aren’t any space requirements that go along with the cage-free certification, so these birds may still end up with very little room to spread their wings or roam freely and very often live in extremely cruel and unsanitary conditions.

Free-range eggs Eggs packed in USDA grade-marked consumer packages labeled as “free-range” must be “produced by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material. Housing systems vary from farm-to-farm and can include multi-tier aviaries. They must allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors and include enrichments such as scratch areas, perches, and nests. Hens must have access to litter, protection from predators and be able to move in a barn in a manner that promotes bird welfare.”

Unfortunately, “access to the outdoors” is subjective, and could simply mean that a door to the outside is provided but isn’t necessarily kept open at all times. There is also a significant loophole in that free-range farmers have the discretion to temporarily confine birds for “reasons of health, safety, the animal’s stage of production or to protect soil or water quality.” Many free-range egg farms take full advantage of this loophole by almost never allowing the birds outside.

Additionally, there isn’t a clear limit with respect to “stocking density,” so even though a door may be provided, most chickens packed in a warehouse will never see any outdoor space.

So while the terms cage-free and range-free can sound, to the unenlightened ear, like humane options, these certifications still allow for much of the same cruel and inhumane conditions we are seeking to avoid.

Pasture-Raised Eggs Unlike cage-free and free-range, there is no USDA-certified “pasture-raised” label. Instead, the pasture-raised concept is based on European standards that hens have at least 108 square feet of space and they eat grass, bugs, works and anything else they can find. They are free to roam their pastures from early morning until right before nightfall.

What’s great about eggs from pasture-raised hens is that they are more nutritious.  Chickens aren’t vegetarians so when they are allowed to eat bugs, grubs, and worms, they are healthier overall. That means more nutritious eggs! A 2003 study conducted by Pennsylvania State University found that pasture-raised eggs contain:

  • Double the omega-3 fat
  • Three times more vitamin D
  • Four times more vitamin E 
  • Seven times more beta-carotene

than eggs raised on a diet of feed only. 

Pasture-raised definitely sounds much more like the natural and more humane way to raise a chicken. Keep in mind, however, that there are still quite a few specifics that go unchecked, so depending on the farm, this still might not be enough to ensure the welfare of the bird.

pasture raised eggs

So What’s an Egg-Lovin’ Gal/Guy Supposed to Do?

For those who aren’t quite ready to give up eggs or simply choose not to, all hope is not lost. There are a few things you can do to help ensure your dollars aren’t spent supporting inhumane farming practices.

For one, there is a label we haven’t discussed yet: Certified Humane Raised and Handled. This label isn’t regulated by the USDA (which is probably a good thing). Instead, it is a certification offered by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), a non-profit organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production. HFAC is endorsed by over 70 humane organizations including the ASPCA. In addition to requiring precise standards be met to receive the Certified Humane label, they also work to educate farmers and consumers about practices that seek to improve animal welfare. Their 3rd party inspectors hold masters and doctoral degrees in animal science and veterinary science.

Certified Humane Raised and Handled Standards

Regarding space requirements, Certified Humane chickens must be provided with a minimum of 1.5 square feet per bird. Of course, this does not mean that each bird is confined to only 1.5 feet; rather, it’s a guideline to help restrict the number of birds that are crammed into a barn.

Additionally, there are enrichment requirements such as perches, dust bathing materials (dust bathing is a comfort behavior for chickens), socialization areas, litter, well-circulated air, light, flooring, food, and water. You can read more about the specifics here.

Some Additional Tips for Buying Healthy Humane Eggs

Check out local farms While buying from local farmers, of course, doesn’t guarantee you are buying eggs from chickens kept in humane living conditions, you do have an opportunity to ask the farmer questions directly and possibly even visit the farm to get an idea of how the animals are treated. Your local grocery store may also source some of their eggs from local farmers so be sure to look there too.

One label to avoid One label to definitely avoid being fooled by is “Animal Care Certified”. This label REALLY gets under my skin because it was created by the United Egg Producers Industry as a means to placate consumers concerned about animal welfare. Chickens are still subject to the same deplorable living conditions as is typical in the industry.

Support companies doing right by animals A full list of farmers and ranchers who are certified humane is maintained on the Certified Humane website. Reward those farmers and ranchers who achieve this certification by seeking out their products.

Write to your representatives and go vote Given all of the issues currently facing our world, topics like animal welfare and the environment are easily drowned out. This means that it’s even more important for those of us who care about the animals and the planet to speak to our representatives about topics such as these. We must be the voice for animals.

Hopefully, these tips have helped demystify some of the confusing labels on egg cartons so that you can do your best to support the humane treatment of animals and promote kindness to our planet. Listen to our podcast on Demystifying Egg Labels here! 

egg carton food labeling

 

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