Cage-Free Eggs: Cracking the Code Recipe
Cage-Free Eggs: Cracking the Code

by Lori Zanteson

Eggs used to be so simple. Shoppers could choose between extra-large or medium and brown or white. Today's supermarket egg case offers an array of selections, like organic, natural, and free-range, but cage-free has been getting extra attention.

Caged hens

Most eggs sold in supermarkets and used in the production of other foods come from caged hens. These cages house five to seven hens each, leaving a tight space for hens to live in and lay their eggs. Confined quarters make natural chicken behaviors such as perching, scratching for insects and nesting impossible. Animal welfare proponents say preventing these natural behaviors is cruel and causes stress that makes hens more vulnerable to disease.

Cage-free hens

The increase in public opposition to caged hens has caused a growing number of producers to turn to cage-free systems. Most cage-free hens live inside large barns in flocks of several thousands. They are free to walk, perch and lay their eggs in nests, but are most always kept inside. While quality of life is much improved, both cage and cage-free systems practice some less than humane treatments, such as killing male chicks upon hatching, burning beaks off, and slaughtering at less than 2 years old.

Egg safety

Food safety measures for U.S. egg farmers are meant to protect against food-borne illness. However, the safety of caged systems, specifically the threat of salmonella contamination, has been questioned. While research by the European Centre for Disease Prevention has shown a reduced risk of human illness caused by salmonella in cage-free housing systems in the EU, the U.S. egg industry differs enough to make comparisons difficult. Studies in this country have found a greater prevalence of salmonella in cage-free than in cage systems. Safety should not be an issue in either system when properly managed.

The choice is up to you

Several factors may influence the decision between caged and cage-free eggs. It really comes down to what's most important to the consumer. If cost is a consideration, cage-free eggs are more expensive because of higher production and lower volume per farm. Nevertheless, supporting a more humane treatment of hens may be a priority. Be aware, however, that the type of housing does not affect the nutrient content of eggs. That is determined among hen breeds, and by the type of feed. A scanning of egg labels will reveal eggs laid by hens with specific diets, such as higher omega-3 feed, may produce more nutritious eggs.

Egg labels defined

Cage free

Hens roam freely in an indoor barn or building, which allows natural behaviors, and unlimited access to food and water. Beak cutting is permitted.

Free range

Free-range hens live uncaged inside barns with continuous outdoor access. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are allowed.

USDA organic

Hens are uncaged, with some outdoor access, the duration of which is not defined. They are fed an organic vegetarian diet free of antibiotics, hormones and pesticides. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are allowed.


The USDA requires meat, poultry and egg products labeled "natural" to be minimally processed and have no artificial ingredients. On egg cartons, this label has not meaning related to farm practices.


Hens are fed fish or flaxseed, but this label has no relevance to animal welfare.

Animal Welfare Approved

Hens are cage free with open outdoor perching access. Natural molting is mandatory and beak cutting is prohibited. Not USDA regulated.



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Cage-Free Eggs: Cracking the Code Recipe


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