Words by: Family Farm Team
Decoding the egg aisle is no easy task for the average grocery shopper. And that’s because in this day and age, the proliferation of misleading and meaningless words and seals that make a carton stand out in a vast sea of egg options has become the norm. For those of us at Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, empty terms like “farm fresh” and “all natural” are on the same plane as “cage-free.” So what’s wrong with cage-free? Why is the diminishing role of cages in the egg industry a bad thing? We’re here to spell out the difference between cage-free and free range eggs, and why this difference should matter to you when you’re faced with that daunting decision at the grocery store.
The term “cage-free” has become a buzzword in the egg industry. And like most buzzwords, it’s not all it’s cracked up to be. In the case of egg-laying hens, cage-free is regulated by the USDA, but remains an incredibly vague term: the USDA doesn’t offer any specifications for space allotted to each hen, and doesn’t include any requirements for access to natural sunlight via windows or other types of openings. Cage-free hens have the ability to move vertically (to an extent, especially in factory-like cage-free warehouses with multiple levels) and horizontally in their indoor living spaces. According to an independent committee assembled by United Egg Producers, 95% of all U.S. egg production came from caged hens in 1995. And although that number is on the decline today with the popularity of cage-free egg production on the rise, the lack of outdoor access and cramped conditions found on many cage-free factory farms makes the term itself much less positive and consequential than it sounds. In short, when you see the cage-free label in the egg aisle, here’s what it might mean for the hens that laid those eggs:
The term “free range” is federally regulated, but due to the USDA’s lack of detailed guidelines, third party certifiers are the gold standard when it comes to free range eggs. Without a strong third party certifier to back free range claims, these hens can be confined to screened-in porches or cement and still be considered free range. All Pete and Gerry’s partner farmers follow the Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) Certified Humane Free Range standards, which are arguably the highest and most transparent of their kind. On our farms, being free range means that during most times of the day and year (except during inclement weather and when predators are spotted in the area), our hens are free to roam outside as they please. Our free range hens have a minimum of 2 square feet per hen of pasture, and that’s an average for every hen in the flock. It's very rare for the entire flock to choose to be outside at any one time during the day; most of them prefer the shade, water, feed, or social opportunities inside the barn, so the girls that feel like venturing out usually have a vast expanse of a field all to themselves to explore. When you pick up a carton of Pete and Gerry’s Organic Eggs, know that the hens that laid them enjoyed:
The most significant difference between eggs from cage-free and free range hens is outdoor access. Put simply, free range hens have it, while cage-free hens don’t. But with outdoor access come so many other benefits to hens—most notably, the ability to display their natural behaviors.
Pasture raised is another term that has emerged in recent years. While there are no USDA standards supporting the term, responsible producers are providing the hens with grass pasture to forage on, just like free range. The debate comes in with respect to how much space is “enough” for hens. Some folks who produce under the “pasture raised” term offer even more average space than free range producers do, but that space does not come free and is often reflected in the price of those eggs on the shelf. The term also doesn’t guarantee that the pastures and chicken feed available to the hens are free from GMOs and harmful pesticides; only the USDA Certified Organic seal does. From a sustainability standpoint, free range is the most earth-friendly and economical option; we think that we’ve found the right balance with Certified Humane Free Range for our hens, farmers, and consumers alike.
In recent years, state-level initiatives like California’s Proposition 12 have called for new standards related to confinement, particularly in the case of egg-laying hens. Having produced to Certified Humane Free Range standards since 2003, we think this is a step in the right direction and long overdue. But we also want consumers to understand that while cage-free is an improvement, many cage-free facilities still consist of floor to ceiling enclosures and massive warehouse barns that provide no outdoor access for laying hens. We continue to caution that this scale of demand will incentivize the very same producers who have been running caged factory farms all these years to convert their operations to cage free—and while this is an improvement, we remain somewhat skeptical about how truly humane those factory farms are as change is slowly but surely implemented. As advocates for real change, we think it's time to push for free range standards nationwide rather than giving factory farms more protection under another far-from-perfect label.
July 09, 2018
October 28, 2019