By Makenna Adams
Cramped and cold, a hen sits in a cage no larger than one square foot. Just as she has done her whole life, she pumps out egg after egg, never seeing the light of day and never moving more than her puny cage allows. This is the life of a “cage-free hen.”
Save “certified organic” labels, the U.S. government establishes no requirements for egg carton labels. “Commercial producers provide laying hens with varying degrees of freedom and space—from less than a sheet of paper to more than 100 times that amount—to engage in natural behaviors,” states the Humane Society of the United States. Shifty egg corporations have used the term “cage-free” to con consumers for decades. In reality, “cage-free” hens have no access to the outdoors, and inhumane practices like beak cutting and starvation-based forced molting run rampant. While “cage free” sounds like a benevolent way for a hen to live, it is simply a way to bypass consumer conscience.
The term “cage-free” has gained attention in recent years as consumers have pushed for answers about the truth behind eggs. “Consumers are increasingly skeptical of ‘marketing terms’ that bear little relation to the realities of how the eggs are farmed, and rightly so,” comments Jeff Hinds, vice president of quality assurance, compliance and food safety at Vital Farms, a proud pasture-raised egg seller. Certainly, corporations have coined many terms to appeal to consumers: the most common terms are caged (though no one advertises their eggs as caged), cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised. Each term grants hens a higher degree of freedom, respectively. To best understand the differences in each term, consider the following:
- Caged: Hens are confined to cages with a 67-square inch space each. They live exclusively indoors, consume a corn or soy diet (the cheapest feed), and are kept in cages the entirety of their egg-laying lives. Caged hens produce more than 90% of eggs in the U.S.
- Cage-Free: These birds have more room than caged hens: each is given approximately 1 square foot. Still, they’re not entirely “free”; they are confined to barns and a corn or soy diet.
- Free-Range: Allotted around 2 square feet per hen, these hens are afforded more space than their caged and cage-free peers. Unfortunately, some are still kept indoors their whole lives and many eat corn/soy-based feed.
- Pasture-Raised: These hens are granted at least 108 square feet each and consume some feed, but mostly graze—enjoying grass, bugs, worms and anything else they find in the ground. They generally roam out of barns early in the morning and return to roost by dusk.
With this wealth of new information, you’ve likely surmised that pasture raised is the best way to go. Brands like Vital Farms out of Austin TX, as aforementioned, Mary’s Chicken in Sanger, CA, Wilcox Family Farms in WA, Handsome Brook Farm in the midwest, Farmers Hen House, Alexandre Kids in Humboldt, CA, and Costco all offer pasture-raised options. It is important to note that Costco also sells caged, cage-free, and free-range eggs, so please check that you are purchasing the pasture-raised variety. However, while the term pasture-raised generally indicates that the hen was, well, pasture-raised, this is unfortunately not always the case. To ensure the hens of the farm you are purchasing eggs from truly live nice lives, please do a quick search to see if the farm actually raises their hens humanely. To further complicate matters, some farms offer both free-range and pasture-raised eggs, for example. The ethics of buying from a company that has both types of hens are likely up for debate, but, considering the inherently complicated relationship between environmentalism and consumerism, I support and appreciate you if you actively try your best to act in favor of the chickens in this scenario, by choosing the pasture-raised option.
If animal welfare is not reason enough to start buying pasture-raised eggs, pasture-raised hens also produce healthier eggs, according to a 2003 study conducted by Pennsylvania State University. Researchers concluded that one pasture-raised egg contains 2x as much omega-3 fat, 3x more vitamin D, 4x more vitamin E and 7x more beta-carotene than eggs from hens raised on corn and soy feed without free rein of the land.
From an agricultural standpoint, pasture-raised eggs also surpass all others. As hens graze, they feed themselves and spread their own manure, which leaves less work for farmers and requires less equipment that pollutes.
Yet, not all pasture-raised eggs are equal. The best egg companies to support are “Certified Humane®” and have a seal to show for it. “Certified humane eggs meet very specific pasture standards” notes the Certified Humane Egg Organization that have passed inspections indicating that hens roam freely in the pasture during the daylight hours, can forage, run, perch, bathe and socialize as much or as little as they choose. Farms provide hens with shade tents, water coolers and trees where hens love to hang out. Furthermore, “inspectors must have a master’s degree or doctorate in animal science and be an expert on the species he or she inspects.”
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. I hope you consider the information I have collected here when you next buy eggs. Hopefully, it is clear that this is a topic I am very passionate about and eager to discuss. While the truth behind eggs is dismaying, it is unbelievably important.