In the U.S., the cage-free egg industry is booming. According to United Egg Producers (UEP), there were 325 million commercial layer hens being held in the U.S. egg industry at the end of 2020. That year, U.S. layer hens produced nearly 97 billion eggs, or about 296 eggs per hen each year. What is life like for an egg-laying hen, even one who is raised “cage-free”?
In this article, we will explore the difference between eggs marketed as “cage-free” and those that are not, answering the frequently asked question: are cage-free eggs really better for the animals?
What Are Cage-Free Eggs?
Cage-free eggs are produced by hens who are not raised in cages. The cages they are commonly kept in are called battery cages, and they come with a whole host of welfare problems. Not all eggs marketed as cage-free are graded and certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and getting the official cage-free certification is voluntary on the part of companies. This leaves a lot of room for producers to interpret what it means to be cage-free.
According to USDA, “cage-free eggs must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or enclosure that allows for unlimited access to food & water & provides the freedom to roam the area during the laying cycle.”
What Does Pasture-Raised Mean?
Eggs from pasture-raised hens are produced by birds who spend time outdoors. The birds typically live outside during the day and indoors at night. Spruce Eats explains a couple of differences between pasture-raised and other eggs: These hens are able to hunt and peck in the grass when outdoors and are not forced to molt. The eggs they produce are often seasonal and may be seen in stores in the spring and summer.
Unlike cage-free, pasture-raised is not a term that is regulated by the USDA and does not have any specific requirements unless the eggs are packaged with some sort of animal welfare certification label. We will explore a few of the better-known welfare certifications below.
What Does Organic Mean?
Eggs labeled as organic are produced by hens who have been fed only organic feed and are not given hormones or antibiotics, though the USDA does allow for birds to be given supplements of vitamins and minerals. The agency also requires that these hens “have access to the outdoors year-round” in an area including vegetation and soil, and states that for the eggs to be labeled organic, the bird “may only be temporarily confined due to documented environmental or health considerations.”
What Does Free-Range Mean?
Free-range eggs are produced by hens that have access to the outdoors to some extent, though the amount of time spent outdoors can vary.
The term “free-range” is also not regulated by the USDA, but eggs that are packaged with the USDA grading label and marketed as free-range “must be produced by hens housed in a building, room, or area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle. The outdoor area may be fenced and/or covered with netting-like material.”
What Is the Difference Between Regular Eggs and Cage-Free Eggs?
Eggs not marketed as cage-free were likely produced by hens kept in cages. Battery cages are small cages widely used in egg production in countries around the world, including the U.S., that leave birds without enough room to fully stand, spread their wings, or turn around.
Cage-free eggs are produced by hens not raised in cages, although these birds are not given the freedom that many consumers may imagine. Just because a carton of eggs came from a cage-free facility doesn’t mean that the hens lived a good life. Even in the production of eggs certified as cage-free, many farms do not provide hens with access to the outdoors, as noted by the USDA.
How Are Cage-Free Eggs Produced?
Cage-free eggs are produced by hens who are not confined to cages and have the ability to move around the barn or “hen house” in which they are kept. They are likely able to perch and build nests where they can lay their eggs.
Animal Welfare Certification Programs
In addition to other requirements such as stocking densities, the Animal Welfare Approved certification program established by the Animal Welfare Institute and administered by A Greener World mandates that birds be provided 1.8 square feet of floor space indoors as well as continuous access to the outdoors; at least 4 square feet of space per bird outdoors; and the ability to engage in natural behaviors including nesting, perching, and dust bathing.
The Certified Humane program from Humane Farm Animal Care issues three different levels of certification: cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised eggs. The Humane Society of the United States writes that all levels “prohibit forced molting through starvation but allow beak cutting.”
In the case of cage-free eggs, though birds are not confined to cages, they still may not be provided outdoor access and can still be subjected to beak trimming. Requirements include stocking density limits and that birds are able to engage in perching and dust bathing.
In the American Humane Certified program, all birds must “live in a barn where they can move freely and have littered floors that encourage natural behaviors like scratching and dust bathing.” The American Humane Association notes that some participating farmers also provide outdoor access, however, it is not amongst the requirements.
Birds must be able to perch and nest and have 1.2 square feet of floor space per hen.
Certification from the Food Alliance requires that birds have outdoor access for at least 8 hours per day, can perch, nest and dust bathe, can access vegetation outdoors, and have 1.23 square feet of floor space per bird, among other standards. Birds may be subjected to beak cutting.
While the birds are uncaged, they do not have to be provided with outdoor access. Requirements include “1.0 – 1.5 sq. ft. of usable floor space per hen” depending on the type of cage-free housing, 9 square feet of space to nest per 100 hens.
Farmed chickens can often suffer ammonia burns from living in their dirty litter and waste, and while this program addresses the threat ammonia poses, the language does not set firm limits on what hens can or cannot tolerate. The requirements read, “Ammonia concentration to which birds are exposed should ideally be less than 10 ppm and should rarely exceed 25 ppm.”
This certification program may be one of the most widely used, but that doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. “Most of the U.S. egg industry complies with United Egg Producers Certified, a voluntary program that permits inhumane practices,” writes HSUS.
HSUS provides more information on various certification programs here.
Are Cage-Free Eggs Really Better?
The egg industry is a mess. As the HSUS notes, the only eggs for which the U.S. government sets any legal requirements are those labeled “certified organic.” This means that two different producers that label their eggs “cage-free” may not be operating with the same standards. Because of this loophole, the “improvements” being made to the lives of cage-free birds could be hard to measure.
Yet many animal protection organizations emphasize the importance of incremental improvements in the lives of farmed animals, including laying hens who can suffer greatly during the egg production process. In fact, many groups are working towards ending the use of battery cages entirely. Recently, Sentient Media reported that battery cages cause so many welfare problems for hens that companies go to great lengths to hide them from the public.
With public awareness of the reality of battery cages increasing, so too is demand for cage-free eggs. However, our consumption of cage-free eggs still has an impact on hens. And there are other ethical matters to consider when it comes to eggs, such as that of male chicks being culled immediately after hatching into the egg industry.
The Road Ahead
Consumers are flocking to cage-free eggs, so much so that approximately 66 percent of U.S. hens must be in cage-free production by 2026 to meet the projected demand. Yet, there are still no requirements in terms of how cage-free eggs are labeled and whether or not they are humane. While more and more companies are voluntarily certifying their eggs, this is just the first step. Unless the USDA enacts new standards for cage-free eggs, layer hens may continue to live in conditions far worst than the industry would lead you to believe.
Jennifer is a writer and editor based near Washington, DC. Her background is in communications in the animal protection movement. She is also a contributing writer with Sentient Media.