What's the Difference Between Cage Free, Free Range and Pasture Raised Eggs?
And what does it mean for your health — and the chickens?
At the grocery store, there is a bewildering number of different egg choices, and you’ll pay a lot more for some of them than others. But what sort of kindness toward chickens does springing for “cage free” eggs buy? Is “free range” better? And what about “pasture raised”?
More consumers are paying attention to how the chickens that lay their breakfast eggs are treated, and industry is starting to respond. In the last few months, several major American fast food restaurants chains have made a pledge to switch to eggs from cage-free chickens in the next decade, some by 2020 and others by 2025.
Should the hens be happy?
Cage free: A cagey term
Most hens in the United States are confined to battery cages, small wire cages connected to other wire cages in long rows. These cages provide each hens only 67 square inches of space — less than the amount of space a sheet of letter-size paper takes up — according to the Humane Society of the United States.
Cage-free hens, by contrast, are able to walk freely inside the building in which they’re housed and lay their eggs in nests.
That doesn’t mean they get fresh air and sunshine. Cage-free hens often “live in very large flocks that can consist of many thousands of hens who never go outside,” explains the Humane Society. NPR reports these hens get only 1 square feet of space each on average.
“Free range” and “pasture raised” equal outdoors time
Free-range eggs are eggs produced from birds that are allowed outdoors for at least part of the day. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) asks producers to show that the chickens have been allowed outside access in order for them to claim their poultry is free-range. "Outdoors" doesn't necessarily mean grassy fields, however.
Pasture raised eggs, on the other hand, are eggs from hens that were fully raised outdoors and had a diet of feed, wild plants and insects, according to the USDA.
Related: How to Tell If an Egg Is Bad
Know that except for “certified organic,” the government does not endorse any claims on egg cartons. Certified organic eggs come from hens that are fed organic and vegetarian feed, free of pesticides and antibiotics, in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program regulations. By law, these hens also have access to the outdoors and are not confined to cages.
Is cage free healthier for you?
It's possible. One 2010 study conducted by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences found that eggs from pastured hens contained more healthy omega-3 fatty acids and more vitamin E than factory hens.
The production of eggs under cage conditions does increase the chance of salmonella due to fecal dust, shedding, stress, increased difficulty of cleaning the cages properly and other factors, according to the Humane Society International.
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