Eggs: What Does “Cage-Free” Mean?

by Fresh Planet Flavor
What does "cage-free mean? Has this happened to you? You're in the grocery store. You walk up to the refrigerated section to buy eggs. Some eggs are priced at $2.89 (or cheaper). Others cost $5.99 (or more). Why? You scan the marketing claims on the outside of the cartons. "Cage free"... That sounds good, you think to yourself. Being in a cage would be uncomfortable. You put the cage-free eggs in your cart and pay extra, hoping that it's worth it.

Has this happened to you? You’re in the grocery store. You walk up to the refrigerated section to buy eggs. You scan the shelves. Some eggs are priced at $2.89 (or cheaper). Others cost $5.99 (or more). Why? You scan the marketing claims on the outside of the cartons. “Cage free”… That sounds good, you think to yourself. Being in a cage would be uncomfortable. You put the cage-free eggs in your cart and pay extra, hoping that it’s worth it.

The marketing claims on egg cartons might not mean what you think they mean! On the other hand, marketing claims on food packaging can sometimes tell you something meaningful about your food and how it was produced… although what they don’t mean is often more important than what they do.

If you’re ready for some education on what the cage-free claim printed on egg cartons means (and whether the price differences for eggs are justified) you’ve come to the right place.

Regarding eggs, what does cage-free mean? is such a common question because it’s an increasingly common claim made by producers. What complicates matters is that it is not regulated. That’s right, there is no set definition created by the U.S. government (or any other third-party certifying entity) for cage-free, and producers are not checked to make sure they’re in compliance.

The closest to an enforced standard that cage-free gets is if the producer wants to list the eggs as USDA Grade-A. Then the USDA gets involved, and producers need to comply with the following: Eggs packed in USDA grademarked consumer packages labeled as cage free must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle. (1)

That’s it! Are you surprised?

What does "cage-free" mean? Has this happened to you? You're in the grocery store. You walk up to the refrigerated section to buy eggs. Some eggs are priced at $2.89 (or cheaper). Others cost $5.99 (or more). Why? You scan the marketing claims on the outside of the cartons. "Cage free"... That sounds good, you think to yourself. Being in a cage would be uncomfortable. You put the cage-free eggs in your cart and pay extra, hoping that it's worth it.
Hens in a cage-free barn at Morning Fresh Farms in Platteville, CO. Source: Cyrus McCrimmon, for The Denver Post.

Let’s put this definition through an evaluation framework. Let’s say there are three important things that play into the price and quality of eggs.

  1. Animal health and welfare
  2. Nutrition
  3. Environmental sustainability

I’ve rated some common egg marketing claims below, based on these three factors. Four stars (✰✰✰✰) is the best from an environmental sustainability, nutrition, and animal welfare perspective. One star (✰) is the worst.

  • Pastured/Pasture-Raised (✰✰✰✰)
  • Certified Humane (✰✰✰✰)
  • Cage-Free (✰✰)
  • Free-Range (✰✰)
  • Natural (✰✰)
  • Vegetarian-Fed (✰✰)
  • Hormone-Free (✰✰)
  • Organic (✰✰)
  • No Claim (✰)

Cage-free falls into the mid-range, without a good rating but not the absolute worst one, either. Why? Per the definition above, the birds aren’t kept in cages but that doesn’t mean they are ever allowed outside, either. What about sunshine? Blue sky? Fresh air? Green grass?

Nope.

“Cage-free” may be a good marketing decision for egg production corporations. Is it a good decision for the welfare of the chickens, the nutrition of the eggs they lay, and the eco-friendliness of the production operations? Source: The Globe and Mail.

Chickens engage in some pretty stressed behavior when they’re kept in a dim, crowded barn their entire lives, such as pecking each other. Sometimes, to death. One advantage of the cages (that were the norm before animal welfare started to become a concern for the general public, and producers discovered they could charge more for eggs produced in a cage-free system) was that they prevented the birds from taking their stress out on each other.

Another issue that arises, when chickens are kept in a cage-free environment, is suffocation from dust. Unfortunately, when chickens roam in a herd indoors—on dusty footing—particles get stirred up and clog the air, making it difficult for the chicken to breathe. There’s no wind blowing like there is in the outdoors to keep the air clean. There’s no rain to keep the dust down.

Lastly, the USDA definition doesn’t stipulate how crowded the chickens are allowed to be. This means that the amount of space each bird gets to herself varied widely, and often isn’t much (typically measured in inches rather than feet because the allotment is often around a single square foot).

Cage-free egg production is definitely on the rise, given consumer interest in more humane treatment of animals.

U.S. cage-free production has expanded significantly since some corporations began stipulating that their suppliers adopt the practice in 2014. Source: USDA.

One thing to consider next time you’re in the grocery store, however, is that eggs from cage-free facilities cost about 15 cents more to produce, per dozen, than eggs from traditional cages. (2) Look at the price difference between the cage-free dozen and a dozen not marked up any claims about how the eggs were produced. Is it more than $.15?

So, that is some quick information to answer the question what does cage-free mean? and although the answer may not have been what you thought, I hope the education will be useful next time you’re buying eggs.

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2 comments

Candace May 17, 2020 - 1:46 pm

Egg producers have to find a way to balance the production of large numbers of eggs for market with the safety and health of the chickens. Happily, I have enjoyed raising chickens for family eggs for over 20 years. We have found that chickens that are totally free range are too vulnerable to predators. Some of these predators, like eagles, are protected by law! There are many partial solutions. The best solution for consumers is to buy from a local producer directly. If demand would surpass supply then regulations on backyard flocks might be relaxed and more people could keep hens and produce eggs and enjoy small market income and improve health and strengthen communities. Additionally, in times like these, one can easily understand that a diversified food system is a matter of national security as well as personal and animal health.

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Fresh Planet Flavor May 18, 2020 - 9:52 pm

Well said! Producing enough eggs via a more humane and environmentally sustainable model is more difficult for sure, but I believe it can scale. Vital Farms is a good example of a company bringing better eggs to the masses.

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