The Key Differences Between Cage-Free and Free-Range Eggs

The terms cage-free and free-range may seem very similar but in reality, there are some key differences between the two. Here’s what you need to know.

chicks on a farm

Explainer Food Food Labeling

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Browsing egg options at the supermarket may seem like a simple endeavor. Certain cartons declare that their eggs are laid by “cage-free” or “free-range” chickens. Some even display a stamp of certification announcing their offerings are “animal welfare approved” or “certified humane.” These sales tactics would make most of us feel better about reaching for a carton of eggs. Surely, the birds must be happy if they’re animal welfare approved and free-range. Unfortunately, these terms are not all they’re cracked up to be and even eggs branded with this flashy language come from chickens that are enduring considerable suffering. 

Is Cage-Free the Same as Free-Range?

The terms cage-free and free-range may seem very similar but in reality, there are some key differences between the two. Most notable is that free-range housing is a subset of cage-free systems, which also come in other forms. Further types of egg production systems include pasture-raised and organic, which generally follow their own criteria.

What Does Cage-Free Mean?

In the United States, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) does offer a certification for cage-free eggs but not all eggs marketed as cage-free have been inspected by the USDA. In order to be labeled cage-free, hens must simply not be kept in cages. Typically, hens that are marketed as cage-free are instead kept in large barns, or aviaries, with no access to the outdoors. There are no guidelines as to how much space the chickens should have. These barns must provide free access to food and water and may provide perches or other enrichment for the birds.  

What Does Free-Range Mean?

Free-range is a type of cage-free housing, in which birds must have some access to space outside their shed. This does not mean that a laying hen housed in a free-range facility has ever actually stepped outside herself. This unfortunate detail is because of a lack of guidance on what constitutes access to the outdoors. Often, this access is limited to a couple of doors that provide entry to a small screened-in patio, typically with a concrete or dirt floor. The appeal of this space for the chickens is often low. Large industrial fans in their housing often create heavy winds around the entrances, deterring the birds from walking through the doors. 

Is Pasture-Raised the Same as Either of Those?

When it comes to laying hens kept to produce eggs, pasture-raised chickens are subjected to the least suffering. These chickens are raised with ample access to the outdoors as well as a barn or other protection from the elements. Of course, there are differences when it comes to the quality of the farm. Some farms have crowded fields with limited space for each individual bird while others provide plenty of room. Some raise their chickens on barren land with few bushes or places to hide while others offer their chickens land filled with bushes, trees, and other interesting and enriching characteristics. There are farms that raise all their chickens on one plot of land year after year while others cycle their chickens from pasture to pasture in order to protect the health and quality of the land. 

What About Organic Eggs?

The USDA provides specific standards governing the treatment of birds used for organic egg production. These standards include guidelines pertaining to the feed that the birds receive, their housing, and a prohibition on steroids and unnecessary medications. Hens raised to produce organic eggs must be provided with regular access to the outdoors, with exceptions for special circumstances. 

Cage-Free Versus Free-Range Versus Pasture-Raised

There are a few key differences between cage-free, free-range, and pasture-raised chickens. The chart below demonstrates a few of the key differences between the three programs. Birds that are raised in a cage-free system often have no access to the outdoors, extremely limited space per bird, and frequently have an entire third of their beak removed. At the other end of the spectrum are pasture-raised birds that spend a large amount of time outside, have a large amount of space per bird, and generally are not debeaked. 

Housing TypeAccess to OutdoorsSpace Per BirdDebeaking
Cage-FreeNo1.23 sq ft per birdYes
Free-RangeOften Highly Limited2 sq ft per birdYes
Pasture-RaisedYes108 sq ft per birdGenerally no

What Are the Animal Welfare Certification Programs?

There are a number of certification programs available to farms that want to create the perception that their eggs are produced humanely. Most of these programs have loopholes or low standards and do not completely eliminate the suffering of the hens. 

Animal Welfare Approved

The Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) seal is offered by A Greener World and is one of the most comprehensive welfare certifications available in the world. The standards dictate that when conditions allow, birds must have access to a range and foraging area that has green vegetation. They specify that following the brooding period birds must have access to at least four square feet of foraging and ranging area. 

Certified Humane

The Certified Humane seal is a product of Humane Farm Animal Care. The seal can be found on a variety of animal products from bison meat to mayonnaise and, of course, eggs. In order to meet the requirements for the seal, laying hens must be uncaged but do not have to be provided with outdoor access. Debeaking is not allowed under the guidelines of the Certified Humane program. 

American Humane Certified

The American Humane Certified program was the first welfare certification available for farmed animals in the United States. The certification is administered by American Humane and includes third party audits. The original standards were put into place in accordance with the five freedoms of animal welfare: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury, and disease, freedom from fear and distress and the freedom to express normal behavior. There are separate standards, one for free-range and pasture-raised birds and one for cage-free chickens. The guidelines for cage-free chickens dictate that if outdoor access is provided it must be scheduled for at least eight hours a day unless weather will not allow. The standards do allow for both beak trimming and beak tipping in order to mitigate cannibalism and injurious feather pecking. 

Food Alliance Certified

As with other certification programs for eggs, the Food Alliance Certification is a completely voluntary program in which egg producers can take part. In addition to the standards applicable to laying hens and other animals, the program also offers certifications for other farmed animals and crop producers. The standards are broader than other similar programs, as they are written to cover a variety of farmed animal species. They focus on several key issues including healthy and humane animal treatment, soil and water conservation, and safe and fair working conditions. 

United Egg Producers Certified

United Egg Producers (UEP) certifications are available for both birds raised in a cage-free environment and a traditionally caged one. The guidelines are put forth by the organization’s Producer Animal Welfare Committee which is made up of egg farmers. Debeaking is allowed by the guidelines. 

Which Egg Label Is the Most Sustainable?

Though no certification programs can be completely depended upon to ensure that chickens endure the least amount of suffering possible in the production of eggs, there are those that have stricter standards than others. The Animal Welfare Approved certification system by A Greener World is one example of a more comprehensive certification system that places a more demanding set of standards on farms. At the other end of the spectrum are the United Egg Producer certifications. Approximately 85 percent of eggs produced in the United States are produced under these guidelines, which shows that they don’t really set higher standards for chicken treatment but rather seek to rebrand the average treatment of laying hens as humane. 

Looking Back

Egg producers have created various kinds of branding around standards, likely with the intent of misleading consumers into thinking that the laying hens on their factory farms are treated humanely and live comfortable lives. This, however, is not the case for the majority of the hens that lay the millions of eggs consumed in the United States every year. Instead, most of these birds live short lives in crowded spaces with their beaks cut down by a third. Their environment and biology are manipulated to force them to produce so many eggs, of such a large size, that their bodies frequently break under the burden. 

Though choosing eggs from farms that use a particular housing type may mean that those chickens avoid some suffering experienced by other layers, they still suffer considerably. The best way to ensure we are not contributing to the suffering of laying hens is to stop consuming eggs. With delicious egg substitutes available for a variety of dishes from baked goods to omelets, there has never been a better time to leave eggs out of our carts and off our plates.

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