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Cage-Free Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

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Do the various terms on egg cartons confuse you? What does cage-free or free range really mean? What about natural or antibiotic- and hormone-free? What should you be looking for on an egg carton label?


Most likely when you hear someone talking about cage-free or free-range chickens, you picture a flock of hens happily roaming a grassy pasture searching for bugs and weeds.

You might even refer to your own chickens as "free-range" even though technically they are confined inside your fenced-in backyard. Either way, those are some darned happy chickens! 

Cage-Free Isn't All It's Cracked Up to Be

But when it comes to egg carton labeling, the array of terms can make your head spin. "Free-range", "Cage free", "Pasture raised" and then there's "Organic", "Vegetarian-fed" and "Hormone-free".

Hopefully you don't have to rely on store bought eggs, but in case you do, let me help you decode exactly what each term means on that egg carton you see in the display case. 

Spoiler alert: Cage-free isn't all it's cracked up to be

What Does Cage-Free Really Mean? Decoding Egg Carton Labels

All Natural

What You Probably Think It Means: You're likely picturing a flock of happy chickens who are fed a diet of yummy, healthy feed and treats.

What It Really Means: This term actually means nothing because an egg, by virtue of being an unprocessed' or minimally processed food with nothing added, is "natural".  

The USDA has declared that egg products are "natural" when they contain no artificial ingredients or color and are only minimally processed. Therefore ALL eggs in cartons are technically "natural" and this is just a marketing ploy.

Non-GMO

What You Probably Think It Means: Non-GMO is such a buzzword these days, but in reality, there are actually very few genetically modified crops sold in the United States.

What It Really Means: Neither eggs nor chickens have ever been genetically modified. Futhermore, even if a chicken is fed GMO crops like soy or corn, the genetically modified material doesn't translate into the eggs. So all eggs are non-GMO, making this carton label meaningless.

Antibiotic-Free/No Added Antibiotics

What You Probably Think It Means: These eggs must be from super healthy chickens who have strong immune systems to stay healthy without the use of any medications.

What It Really Means: Most laying hens in the U.S. are not given antibiotics (although meat birds often are), since it's cheaper to just vaccine them as chicks and hope for the best. 

Only a very small percentage of commercial laying hens are ever given antibiotics - and their eggs are "diverted from human consumption" as an added safeguard.

Hormone-Free/No Added Hormones

What You Probably Think It Means: Everyone knows artificial hormones are bad, right? So we definitely don't want to eat eggs laid by chickens being given hormones.

What It Really Means: This term is a bit misleading because it's actually prohibited by the FDA in the U.S. to give hormones or steroids to poultry, so every egg is hormone-free. And always has been.



Certified Humane

What You Probably Think It Means: Treating animals humanely should be the norm, but sadly it's not. So what does 'certified humane' really mean?

What It Really Means: In order to put "Certified Humane®" on the label, the farms raising the laying hens must conform to some pretty strict guidelines ensuring improved animal welfare. 

Feed and Water

For example, the chickens must be fed a diet appropriate for their age, have unlimited access to fresh feed and water all day long (meaning no chicken has to travel more than 8 yards to get to the feed) and also be provided supplemental calcium. 

No animal by-products are allowed in the feed. Water must be refreshed regularly and not frozen.

Living Quarters

Hens must not be confined to cages and must be allowed space to roam and perform 'natural' behaviors such as perching, preening and dust bathing. There must acceptable lighting, ventilation and must not allow the chickens to come in contact with sharp edges, smoke paint or other toxic fumes. 

The building must be checked daily and feces and/or dead birds removed. The floor of the structure must be cleaned regularly of dirty or wet litter and topped off with fresh litter. A dust bath area must be provided. Ammonia levels must be closely monitored.

Each chicken must have enough room to stand, turn around and stretch their legs and wings, as well as adequate space to perch. A minimum of 1.5 square feet of floor space and 1 foot of roosting bar per hen is required, as well as one nesting box for each 5 hens.

Daylight

A minimum of 8 hours of daylight and 6 hours of darkness must be provided.

Other Considerations

Forced molting* is prohibited, beak cutting** is allowed. (Now that doesn't sound very humane to me.) But overall the "certified humane" label is a good starting point.

Forced molting refers to the practice of basically starving a hen to force her to molt quickly and get back to the business of laying eggs in the shortest period of time possible.

** Beak cutting refers to the practice of trimming a hen's beak to reduce the changes she'll peck another hen and injure or even kill her.

Organic

What You Probably Think It Means: If you think that organic eggs come from chickens who eat an organic diet, you would be correct, but that's just one piece of it.

What It Really Means: In order to use the USDA National Organic Program label, the chickens must not only be fed organic feed (feed that was produced without using chemical pesticides or fertilizers), but must also be free-range (cage-free plus have access to the outdoors).  It's importnat to note however, that not all free-range eggs are organic....

And as mentioned above, that free-range "outdoors" isn't necessarily a grassy pasture, but can be a cement pad or small patch of dirt. And some of the chickens might never even find the little door to the outdoors.

Although organic does mean something very specific as far as what the chickens are eating, the label still doesn't guarantee the happiness of the chickens nor the freshness of the eggs. 

The organic label is more about the health of the eggs, not the happiness of the chickens. Eggs labeled "organic" can be laid by chickens subjected to beak cutting and forced molting as well as artificial light ot force laying. Boo.

Vegetarian-Fed

What You Probably Think It Means: Chickens love all kinds of fruits and vegetables. So it's good to buy eggs laid by vegetarian chickens, right?

What It Really Means: Chickens also love protein. They eat bugs and worms (both sources of protein) in their natural environment and have also been known to gulp down toads, frogs, snakes and lizards.

Chickens are true omnivores and a well-balanced diet is healthiest for them. While their feed contains no animal-byproducts, that's true, the vegetarian-fed label also usually means that the hens don't spend any time outdoors where they might (gasp!) inadvertently eat a grasshopper! 

But as far as commercial eggs go, if you don't see "vegetarian-fed" on the label, that doesn't mean those chickens were out frolicking chasing bugs and worms, instead they were likely fed some feather meal or other unsavory animal by-products.

Omega-3 Enriched

What You Probably Think It Means: You likely know that omega-3 fatty acids are beneficial to human health and well-being, but they also contribute to hen health. So this would be a good thing to have in your eggs, right?

What It Really Means: Eggs labeled as being enriched with omega-3 have been laid by hens given a diet rich with fatty acids including flax or chai seeds, sea kelp, fish oil, etc. in addition to a conventional feed, resulting in higher levels of omega-3s. 

The USDA requires the egg carton to state the amount of omega-3 each egg contains, which can be up to five times the amounts in conventionally raised or even free-range eggs.

Happy Hens/Hand Raised

What You Probably Think It Means: Eggs are hand collected from a cute red barn each morning at dawn from hens who all have names.

What It Really Means: Actually these "feel good" phrases are not regulated at all. So they conjure up a nice image, but in reality are pure marketing ploys to make us feel good about buying their eggs. But... in some cases, it is likely true that the chickens are happy, as long as there are other more important words on that carton.

Farm Fresh

What You Probably Think It Means: A grizzled farmer in overalls stomps out to the cute red barn, collected the eggs, then loads them into his slightly rusted pick-up truck to deliver them right to your grocery store. 

What It Really Means: Actually this is just another marketing ploy used in hopes it will conjure up the mental image I just described. It really means nothing. There is no real meaning to "farm fresh".

And as far as "fresh" goes, while you're at it, check how old those store bought eggs actually are. There's a code right on each carton that tells you the date the eggs were put in the carton that the egg industry doesn't want you to learn how to crack (pun intended!).

Local

What you Probably Think it Means: When you see local on the egg carton label, you likely presume those eggs came from a local farm.

What It Really Means: And you would be right - sort of. In order to use "local" on an egg carton label, the eggs must have been laid by hens located less than 400 miles from where they are ultimately processed and put in the carton. 

No mention about them being local to the particular store they end up in.

Interetingly, every carton of Vital Farms eggs includes the name of the farm where the eggs were laid and a website where you can "virtually" visit the farm!  

Brown Eggs

What you Probably Think it Means: Growing up as a kid, we sang the jingle "brown eggs are local eggs and local eggs are fresh". So, I guess we were being brainwashed by the egg industry to believe that brown eggs are somehow superior to white eggs.

What It Really Means: The truth is that brown and white eggs are virtually the same inside. The eggshell color merely means the egg was laid by a different breed. So if you prefer white eggs for some reason, go ahead and grab a carton of those. 

Graded Eggs

Commercially sold eggs are graded into three categories by the USDA. Grade AA, Grade A and Grade B. The grading refers entirely to the appearance and "quality" of the interior and exterior of the egg - the shell, yolk, white and air cell inside the egg. 

Not the nutrition, shell color nor size of the egg. And all grades of eggs are just fine to eat, although Grade B eggs are not usually sold on supermarket shelves. They're more often used to make dried or liquid egg products instead.

According to the USDA, a highest graded AA egg has a smooth, clean shell; whites that are thick and firm; yolks that are high, round, and practically free from defects; and with the air sac inside the egg less than 1/8 inch.

Grade A eggs may have whites that are only “reasonably” firm and an air sac up to 3/16 inch. The lowest grade eggs, Grade B eggshells can have some staining, and may be misshapen or have ridges, thin spots or rough areas; an air sac greater than 3/16 inches and even blood spots in a thin, watery albumen. 

Most commercially sold eggs for consumer consumption are either AA or A. 

Egg Size

Eggs are sized into several size classes ranging from small to jumbo. Most recipes call for Large eggs, but for eating, the size you choose is personal preference. The egg size will be printed on each egg carton.

Cage-Free

What You Probably Think It Means: Cage-free is a good thing right? We've all heard of those teeny-tiny cages in commercial poultry farms no bigger than a sheet of typing paper that a chicken lives in its whole life.

What It Really Means: It does actually mean that the chickens don't live in cages. But they don't live in the lap of luxury either and probably never even see the outdoors.

Most likely they are crammed into a huge warehouse, still likely only having an average of one square foot of living space apiece.  

But now they are susceptible to pecking and cannibalism from the other hens - even though beak trimming is permitted which can help mitigate that - and are walking around (and laying their eggs) in a dirty, poop-filled area and stepping over (or on) any hens that die. 

Air quality is also generally lower for them than caged hens since they are on floor level where the fumes are strongest. And the incidence of bumblefoot is considerably higher.

According to the USDA, a cage-free chicken much be allowed to "freely roam a building or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and water". Note this doesn't mean they ever actually go outside or actually even find the food and water.

Studies have shown that cage-free chickens have higher mortality rates (due to hen-on-hen violence!) and more risk of feather pecking, as well as disease transmission than those in those tiny, inhumane cages. So much for that being a good thing.

It's a controversial subject for sure, but honestly given the choice, I would say that confining commercial chickens in cages is preferable (and safer for them) in a warehouse environment. 

However, there are alternatives that I am hugely in favor of such as pasture raised or even free-range.

Free-ranging/Free Roaming/ Free Run

What You Probably Think It Means: C'mon, admit it, you're picturing a flock of chickens roaming around a green, flower-filled pasture, looking for bugs, chasing each other, pulling worms out of the ground and sun bathing.

What It Really Means: In order to label a carton of eggs '"free-range" or 'free roaming", the hens who laid them only need to have access to the outdoors. 

That doesn't mean any particular chicken actually ever finds the door to go outside. The "free range" label doesn't specify how much time each chicken much spend outdoors, nor does it mean that there's anything for them to forage on once they get outside.

And it's not likely to be a green grassy pasture even if they find the door, but instead a mere square of dirt or cement even qualifies. And the average space required per chicken is still sometimes only the minimum requirement of two square feet.

Pasture-Raised

What You Probably Think It Means: The term pasture-raised likely brings to mind something similar to free-range, that is, a flock of happy chickens roaming around in a pasture filled with grass and weeds, bugs and worms.

What It Really Means:  If you are at all concerned about the happiness and welfare of the chickens laying the eggs you eat, then this is what you want to read on the carton. Chickens, like other animals and humans, need sunshine and fresh air. They need room to exercise. And pasture-raised gives them that.

Pasture-raised means that the chickens spend the majority of time outdoors (6 hours per day minimum year round) and have a barn to sleep in at night to keep them safe from predators. 

As long as the temperatures are above freezing, the chickens are allowed to go outside, and there must be an exit door at least every 50 feet along the side of their structure.

There is a wide variety among the types of pasture that can qualify: some flocks are rotated regularly onto new ground, others have both wooded and field areas in which to graze, but their pasture must have some type of vegetation on it, as well as grit.

Overall, these chickens are treated the best. They are required to have 108 square feet per hen, minimum, with a maximum of 1,000 hens on a 2.5 acre plot. 

Another bonus: chickens that are allowed to roam and eat a natural diet have been proven to lay more nutritious eggs that taste better and they are less likely to be contaminated with e.coli or salmonella.

Egg Carton Labels that Mean Something

Hopefully this will help you the next time you are browsing the egg aisle at the supermarket, or labeling your own eggs for sale. These are the things that you should be looking for on a carton of eggs |

  • Carton code that tells you how old the eggs are
  • Certified humane
  • Pasture raised
  • Organic
  • Omega-3 enriched

Egg Carton Labels you can Largely Ignore


Pretty much everything else on  the carton can be disregarded, including |
  • Natural
  • Antibiotic-free
  • Hormone-free
  • Cage-free
  • Fresh
  • Farm fresh
  • Free-range
  • Local
  • Vegetarian Fed

If you Must buy Store Bought...

And for the record, some of the "best" store bought brands for eggs are |

But remember, bottom line, no store bought eggs will ever be as fresh and delicious as those you collect from your own backyard. Nor any chickens quite as happy!


Oh and just for the record, my girls eggs are "local, all natural, farm fresh, omega-3 enriched" eggs from "antibiotic-free, free-range, hormone-free, pasture-raised" chickens. 

I can't claim the "organic" label because even though their feed may be organic, I also supplement their diet with non-organic kitchen scraps and supplements - and, most importantly, the eggs haven't been officially certified organic.

But honestly, they don't need any labels because I know they're fresh, delicious and laid by happy hens!

Here's a great visual graphic showing the space requirements for each of the various egg carton label terms.



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