Words by: Family Farm Team
Here at Pete and Gerry’s, we recognize that the egg aisle is a confusing place. That’s why we hope to earn your trust so that instead of having to tirelessly research every industry term out there (cage-free, free range, and the notoriously meaningless "all natural" to name a few), you can simply reach for our egg carton with confidence. And that confidence should stem from knowing that we’re doing the right thing for our hens, our farmers, our planet, and for you. Our family has been raising chickens for three decades, and all those years of hands-on experience come with a lot of expertise. It's part of what makes our company pretty unique in the egg industry. And we hope it shows in the quality of our eggs and the way that raise our hens; we hope that whether this is your first or hundredth time frying up a Pete and Gerry's Organic Egg, we've proven that we care so much about what we do that if there was a better way to do it, we'd be the first ones in line.
For many decades, the egg aisle has been lined almost entirely with caged eggs coming from hens living indescribable lives. Finally, after years of advocacy and consumers' growing awareness of this barbaric form of agriculture, things are beginning to change. Although caged eggs are still prolific, animal welfare advocates such as ourselves are hopeful that they'll be a thing of the past in the near future. Legislation across the country is already bringing change to many states. While this is fantastic news for hens everywhere, it has also given less scrupulous companies an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon without making meaningful, lasting changes in their industries. We've already seen this scenario start to play out: many former caged producers are now producing “cage-free” eggs, but are still using the same industrial approach they used in the past. This transition will represent a marginal improvement in hen welfare thanks to some additional space for the hens to move, but the cage-free facilities where they're raised will in no way represent what a consumer would consider to be a farm in terms of scale, crowding, cleanliness, or transparency.
You may have noticed the Certified Humane Free Range seal on our egg cartons. To us, and hopefully to our consumers, it's not just another label. Certified Humane is a program of Humane Farm Animal Care, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the lives of all farm animals. The Certified Humane Free Range standard was developed by scientists and animal welfare experts and provides specific, measurable standards for farms like ours that raise egg-laying hens. In short, it ensures that all of our hens have access to:
So what about that last point? Most consumers who are weighing free range versus pasture raised egg options have questions about the specific amount of space that the hens have. While the term "free range" is recognized and regulated by the USDA, there is no specific standard for space. This makes third-party certifiers like the one we use crucial, at least in our view. For Certified Humane Free Range hens like ours, the requirement is 2 square feet of outdoor access on grass per hen. This may not sound like a whole lot of space if you imagine a flock of hens all occupying their own little 2' x 2' patch of grass. But that image you're envisioning right now is an unrealstic portrayal of a free range farm. Consider this: the hens in a flock will almost never all be in the same place at the same time. That's the beauty of freedom to roam; it also comes with freedom of choice. Hens are a lot like humans in this regard. Whether it's a cool, breezy day or a delightful 72 degrees, many of them simply prefer to spend time inside. Their barns are safe, comfortable, cool in the summer, warm in the winter, and provide opportunities for socialization and natural behaviors.
As a rule, we never force hens to go outside. The keyword in free range is "free." We give our girls ample ways to access the outdoors, then let them decide for themselves where they'd like to spend their time. Throughout the day, you'll see a steady stream of hens entering and exiting the barn. This means that at any given point in time, the hens that are enjoying the great outdoors have far more than 2 square feet to themselves. Even those with an affinity for a solo stroll in the pasture now and then remain true to their species, which is an incredibly social one. While hens don't wish to be crammed into giant warehouses or tiny cages, they do appreciate companionship: even among the grass, you'll see them huddled in cliques, clucking about whatever is on their mind that day. Needless to say, there is always more open pasture than occupied pasture.
Don't get us wrong: pasture raised can be a responsible, highly beneficial way to raise hens. The problem with this label is that, like all labels (yes, even free range), it can be a bit deceptive. Unlike free range, the term "pasture raised" is not regulated by the USDA, making third-party certifications even more important when an egg carton says "pasture raised" anywhere on it. At face value, pasture raised means that the hens have more space to roam. Unfortunately, many consumers have been taught to believe that more space is inherently better for the hens, but this is an oversimplification. There are many wonderful aspects of pasture raised farms, but placing pasture raised above free range in a conceptual hierarchy of animal welfare doesn't tell the whole story.
Depending on which third-party certification (of lack thereof) a pasture raised egg producer has, they may advertise that they offer anywhere from 35 to 108 square feet per hen. Compared to the 2 square feet required by Certified Humane's free range standards, this seems like quite a large difference on paper. But more space is not necessarily better in this case; more is just more. Just like free range hens, pasture raised girls will never all be in the same place at the same time, which means even more pasture will go unused and untouched.
That additional pasture comes at a price both for the farmer and the consumer. The not-so-hidden cost of owning and maintaining additional farmland is unbelievably high thanks to the scarcity of agricultural land in our country. For most small family farms, maintaining an excess of empty land isn't a realistic way to make a living raising egg-laying hen.
For a small category of micro and hobby-style farms, though, extra land can work economically-speaking. These farms typically sell their eggs in a completely separate economic climate, often at farmers' markets, through CSAs, and to local towns at considerably higher prices than you might find at the grocery store. Some slightly larger producers are even using that additional pasture space for good, practicing regenerative farming and actively strengthening their farms' ecosystems with the goal of giving back to the planet. So in the same way that we support backyard chicken coops, we see value in the concept of pasture raised eggs, but encourage consumers to be inquisitive of the role of that excess farmland and whether it's actively being used for good.
First and foremost, what's best for the hens? At Pete and Gerry's, decades of experience have given us invaluable insight into these wonderful creatures and their behaviors. First, we firmly believe that the independently audited free range standards set by Certified Humane are the highest, most comprehensive of their kind. Second, we believe in doing what's best for our farmers. To us, that means helping them make a living raising hens humanely without the undue costs of extra, often under-utilized pasture space. This is what allows us to deliver high quality organic eggs to our consumers at a reasonable price, making support for humane farming practices widely accesible at the grocery store.
It's an exciting time to be in the business of producing humane, ethical, organic eggs. The industry is changing right before our eyes, and consumers are becoming better educated not just about labels, but about the real meaning behind those labels. Ultimately, it's up to every individual to decide what they think a reasonable egg farm should look like. For us, it's a small family farm producing to the Certified Humane Free Range standard, meeting our country's egg demands in a humane, sustainable way; not too little space, but not too much, either.
May 29, 2021
Thank you for taking the time to educate people on the difference between "Free Range" and "Pasture Raised" chickens.
May 30, 2021
It's important to know the differences, and we're glad to help educate folks on what they are getting! Believe in what you buy!
July 09, 2018
September 07, 2016