In general, hens that are free to roam in their houses and have access to some outside space produce free-range eggs. Hens that live in cages without any roaming opportunities produce cage eggs.
Many egg cartons carry the free-range label. While this does mean that the hens have some access to roaming and possibly outdoor space, there are no uniform standards as to what constitutes free-range eggs.
Keep reading to learn more about the various egg certification schemes, how these schemes classify eggs, and the benefits of free-range eggs both for the health of people and for the chickens.
In the United States, regulators classify eggs according to grade, color, production methods, and size.
Regulators classify eggs as grade AA, A, or B depending on the quality of the product and the appearance and condition of the shell.
Egg cartons bearing a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) shield means that regulators have checked the eggs for quality and weight.
Farmers pay a fee to join this voluntary scheme.
The breed of the chicken will determine the color of the eggshell. Typically, white hens produce white eggs, and brown hens lay brown-shelled eggs.
Free-range means hens have adequate space to move around inside their houses and have access to an outdoor space where they can roam freely. It is just one example of the different egg production methods.
- Conventional cage eggs: This refers to the intensive farming method whereby eggs come from hens predominately living in cages.
- Cage-free eggs: Hens are free to roam inside barns, but do not have access to outdoor space.
- Organic eggs: Organic eggs may carry the USDA Certified Organic label. This means farmers feed and house the hens according to USDA’s organic standards. The hens eat a vegetarian diet that is free from pesticides and antibiotics. They also have access to the outdoors.
Under USDA regulations, free-range eggs must come from hens that can move about freely both vertically and horizontally in indoor houses.
Because there are no definitive standards on how much space hens should have, different farms use a variety of housing systems. Some keep their chickens in aviaries with multiple tiers or floors, but this is not always the case.
Hens that produce free-range eggs must have access to fresh food and water. They must also be able to go outside whenever they want throughout their laying cycle. Often hen enclosures have fences or netting.
Farms that produce free-range eggs must create an environment that allows their hens to exhibit natural behaviors. They must provide facilities that enable the birds to live as naturally as possible, such as scratching areas, perches, and nests. Farmers also need to protect their hens from predators and give them access to litter.
While farmers keep cage-free hens in similar conditions, they do not need to have access to outside space.
Because there are no distinct and uniform standards as to what constitutes free-range eggs or cage-free eggs, many people rely on certification schemes to choose their eggs.
There are many of these schemes, all of which regulators audit independently.
United egg producers (UEP) certified cage-free
Hens can roam vertically and horizontally in indoor barns and have at least 1 square foot of floor space each.
They live in an environment that allows them to exhibit natural behaviors but do not necessarily have access to outside space.
Egg producers must work to UEP Certified standards on all their farms. Hens are usually caged and must have 0.46 square feet of space each, which often does not allow the hens enough space to spread their wings, perch, or forage.
Animal Welfare Approved
To receive the Animal Welfare Approved label, each hen must have:
- a minimum of 1.8 square feet of indoor floor space that allows them to nest and perch
- have constant access to an outdoor area for roaming and foraging
- upward of 4 square feet of outdoor space that has growing vegetation
- an area where they can perch and nest
This program offers three levels of certification:
- Regular: Birds do not live in cages but have no access to outside space. They must have access to nests, perches, and dust-baths.
- Free-range: Birds must be able to go outdoors for at least 6 hours a day. Each hen must have access to 2 square feet of outdoor space, which does not need to have growing vegetation.
- Pasture-raised: Under this scheme, each bird must have access to at least 108 square feet of pasture, which is an area covered in living vegetation for at least 6 hours a day.
American Humane Certified
There are four levels of certification offered through this scheme.
- Enriched colony cages: Each bird must have access to a caged area of least 0.8 square feet that contains perching posts and nesting boxes.
- Cage-free: Each hen has 1.25 square feet of floor space, which has perches and nesting boxes. Farmers may keep their birds indoors all the time.
- Free-range certification: Each bird has access to 21.8 square feet of outdoor space.
- Pasture-raised: Each hen must have 108 square feet of outdoor living pasture space.
Food Alliance Certified
Under the Food Alliance Certification, birds must not live in cages and have access to at least 1.23 square feet of floor space each. They must also have:
- access to natural daylight or be able to go outdoors for at least 8 hours a day
- access to outdoor pasture areas
- places to nest, perch, and dust-bathe
Eggs produced to all the varying certification levels are widely available in most grocery stores.
Generally, if a farm follows stricter standards, the eggs will be more expensive. In other words, the higher the animal welfare standard, the more expensive the egg.
This is because production costs are higher for the farmer, who tends to pass the increased costs onto the customer.
According to one study, there are slight differences in the mineral content of eggs depending on the rearing environment. Researchers found a higher magnesium content in free-range eggs. However, they also found that organic eggs had lower phosphorus and zinc content.
Another study found that beta carotene levels were also higher in free-range eggs. Other research has shown that eggs from pastured hens contain higher levels of flavonoid and carotenoid antioxidants, as well as anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids than eggs from caged or organically-raised hens.
Beta-carotene acts as a powerful antioxidant in the body. The body also converts it into vitamin A, which is an essential fat-soluble nutrient that is critical for many aspects of health, including supporting the immune system.
Hens raised in free-range environments have a much better quality of life. They can go outside and can engage in natural behaviors, such as dust-bathing, walking, and foraging.
Birds who live in cages in large flocks can be vulnerable to disease or getting trapped in between wires.
Caged birds also tend to show signs of distress and discomfort. When birds are more at ease, they tend to flap their wings stretch, shake their bodies, or wag their tails.
The term free-range means that chickens have the freedom to roam in their houses and have some access to some outdoor space. A free-range label does not specify how long farmers let the birds out for, or what that outside space should be like.
Egg certification schemes are the best way to understand the conditions under which farmers produce their eggs.
While nutritional differences between free-range and cage eggs are minimal, the caged hens do not have such a good quality of life because they are unable to carry out many of their usual or normal behavior activities.
Free-range birds have a far better life, with space that allows them to participate in their normal behaviors. People who are concerned about animal welfare and the quality of their eggs should consider choosing eggs from pasture-raised hens.