Many feel that poultry raised in cage-free environments produce better quality eggs, live more enriched lives, and provide more nutrient-rich food products. Are cage-free eggs better? Here we will discuss things you want to know and give you the low down on the myths and the facts.

Key takeaways:
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    USDA cage-free certified eggs come from farms inspected at least twice a year, must be uncaged while laying, and can roam free in a barn or poultry house with free access to food and water.
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    Cage-free eggs are different from free-range or pasture-fed birds.
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    Cage-free eggs, while not healthier nutritionally, are produced by birds with improved quality of life and more humane practices.

Cage-Free Eggs: healthy or hype?

Animal welfare concerns help drive changes in animal production industries. Egg-laying birds provide one example of this concern. Gone are the days when people tolerate birds kept solely in cages 24/7 with no ability to stretch their legs, walk around, nest properly, or interact with other birds. Nowadays, society, veterinarians, animal welfare organizations, and the general public expect that animals will be treated humanely. Many feel this includes changing caged animals to those raised ‘cage-free.’ But what does this mean?

Egg-laying production methods

A variety of egg-laying production systems exist worldwide. The United States generally has three categories. Those raised in battery cages, cage-free, and those raised free-range. Each production-related strategy has advantages and disadvantages. From the consumer standpoint, these perceived pluses and minuses may not be the same.

Battery cages

Battery cages are used to raise most egg-laying birds used in production in the US. The Humane Society of the United States states that generally, these cages are at most 67 square inches in size. For a point of reference, a regular piece of paper is 64 square inches in size, not much space, for sure.

These birds cannot participate in routine nesting behaviors, engage or interact with other birds (no fraternizing), cannot fully stretch their wings or legs, perch, or take part in other normal bird behaviors, which negatively affects the health of the bird.

The overall health and welfare of animals raised for production now include the basics from the animal’s perspective and the animal’s value to humans. It encompasses an animal’s physical health (pain-free, well-fed, free access to water, and health), mental health, and ability to have certain experiences or enrichments. Things like normal play, touch, and having choices. Finally, animals need to fulfill behavioral needs that, when not permitted, create frustration, behavior problems, and even health concerns.

Cage-free vs. free-range poultry

Many consumers want to know where their food comes from, farm to table. They are looking for fewer additives, no pesticides, more humane animal rearing, and other qualities in their foodstuffs. As a result, cage-free eggs have become a commonly requested end-product for many. But does everyone know what that means?

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) defines a ‘cage-free’ egg as that which comes from a ‘free-roaming’ hen or other female egg-laying bird. These birds can roam around in an open space – typically a poultry house or barn, and this differs from ‘pasture-fed’ or ‘free-range’ birds. These birds are raised outside or with access to the outside for periods of the day and have access to graze on pasture and plants.

Many feel that free-range poultry, those not only not reared in cages but those with access to the outside and natural sunlight, and the ability to graze and interact with nature, have the best quality of life. Animals in cages cannot properly nest or engage in normal bird socialization practices. While those raised cage-free and free-range have this ability. Thus, most veterinarians, humane societies, and related welfare organizations feel that if humane raising practices guide your egg selection, choosing non-caged eggs is the way to go.

White vs. brown eggs?

The color of an egg has nothing to do with the rearing of that egg’s layer. Certain breeds of birds lay certain colored eggs, and the majority of US producers use breeds that produce white eggs. They tend to be smaller birds and less expensive to raise. However, the color of the egg itself doesn’t tell you if the birds were raised cage-free or not.

Tips to identify cage-free eggs

One must carefully read labels and packaging when deciding what type of eggs and other products to buy. Many claims may be made about cartons of eggs, but knowing what they mean may help you decide on the cheaper or more expensive version. Further, understanding why those costs may be higher may also help guide your selection.

For eggs to be labeled USDA Graded (AA, A, or B) and identified as cage-free, these sources must verify the claim via a review process. The USDA’s Livestock, Poultry, and Seed Program do this as a fee-for-service.

  • Not all eggs with USDA grading are cage-free.
  • All cage-free eggs are not graded by the USDA.

But you can rest assured that if an egg brand carries the USDA Grade Shield and claims to be cage-free, this claim is only feasible after onsite farm inspections by the USDA. Inspections must occur at minimum twice yearly to ensure the hens are housed with the approved production system. These certified eggs must be produced by hens with free access to roam while laying and free access to food and water. They do not have to have any access to the outside or the ability to graze and take in the natural environment.

Certifications and labeling

However, this article only touches the surface of all that goes on in determining cage-free labeling. Above and beyond the USDA labeling, one may have products Certified Humane, Gap 5-step program, and American Humane Certified, among others. Included requirements vary but may include:

  • No cages;
  • Indoor minimum space;
  • Perches;
  • Nest boxes;
  • Dust-bathing available;
  • Outdoor access.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund further describes available certifications and what they mean. Factors included in determining status go above and beyond cage or no cage and may consist of animal enrichment activities, outdoor access, minimum space provided, and more.

Healthier or hype?

Cage-free eggs may be advertised as healthier than those produced by animals raised in cages. However, studies suggest that nutritionally, there is no benefit. The benefits lie in the more humane way the animals are reared. See the reference section for studies.

While the eggs may not be any healthier in birds raised in cages vs. allowed to roam around and interact with other birds, the birds themselves have improved health states. Medical conditions common in cage-raised birds, such as feather picking and musculoskeletal issues, including weakness and increased susceptibility to illness, occur less frequently when animals are not confined and can participate in natural grooming and nesting behaviors.

Producers may be less likely to change to cage-free or free-range rearing because of increased:

  • Costs;
  • Increased workforce needs;
  • Increased risks to the workforce;
  • Increased animal healthcare and management needs.

Trick or truth?

Are cage-free eggs labeled USDA Grade and cage-free truly that? Can you be sure the eggs you eat come from cage-free animals when many companies provide caged and cage-free eggs? The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has strict written requirements and traceback plans to ensure those identified as cage-free at all stages of the production food chain, from storage to packaging.

To buy cage-free or not to buy?

Several years ago, companies including McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and Starbucks claimed to have pledged to switch to all cage-free egg producers by the year 2025. However, with COVID-19 and rising production costs now passed on to the consumers and the current 2022 avian influenza outbreaks decimating many poultry populations in the US, one questions how likely these companies will 100% switch to cage-free products.

Still, companies who pledge to consider more humane rearing practices and listen to consumers’ wants speak volumes. While slower to adapt than other countries and regions, the US production industry seems to be heading towards a less intensive and more humane manner in rearing animals used for egg production. Your selection of cage-free eggs over caged birds will drive the demand for cage-free eggs higher and further push the industry away from the less humane production methods.

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