chicken factory farm

Eggs – Free Range, Cage Free, Organic, What’s the difference?

According to Everyday Food, eggs are one of the earliest known food sources, and yet the question of whether the chicken or the egg came first continues to perplex and befuddle the masses. Today an even more complicated issue has arisen – what kind of eggs are best for you?

Have you noticed that the egg section is starting to rival the shampoo and drink sections for variety and choice, leaving you to decipher multiple labels and lists of ingredients? There are free range, cage free, and organic varieties, to mention just a few. What do these terms mean and how do you decide which eggs are best for you and your family?

Egg Basics 101

According to a fact sheet compiled by theU.S. Dept. of Agriculture, American Egg Board and USAPEEC – revised June 2008 “Presently, there are 60 egg producing companies with 1 million plus layers [egg-laying hens] and 12 companies with greater than 5 million layers. To date, there are approximately 240 egg producing companies with flocks of 75,000 hens or more. These 255 companies represent about 95% of all the layers in the United States. In 1987, there were around 2,500 operations. (Number of operations in 1987 include some contract farms and divisions.)”

Chicken eggs come in different sizes – small to jumbo (or extra large) and in different colors. Egg containers show the size, sell by date, and the kind of eggs. Brown hens usually lay brown eggs. White hens lay white eggs.

In Eggs, author Michael Roux says, “An egg is a treasure chest of substances that are essential for a balanced diet – rich in proteins, lipids, vitamins and minerals, including iron and zinc. It provides first-class protein, is low in sodium, and a medium egg contains only 78 calories.”

In the supermarket in the U.S., you’ll find your eggs are classified according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) standards. Eggs are graded AA-B and will have the USDA logo on the package to show that the eggs have been federally inspected. In Canada, the best choice is Grade A eggs.

Choices, Choices

Eggs from Caged Hens

The kind of eggs that you and your mother have been buying from your grocery store for the last few decades probably come from chickens raised in battery cages. These birds were probably given antibiotics. This kind of set up is banned in some areas of Europe  and is a target for animal rights groups. In fact, many people are outraged by the inhumane treatment of these chickens, such as the group ChickenOut!, a project of the Vancouver Humane Society.

Organic Eggs

Fed with organic feed (no additives, animal byproducts or GMO), these hens live cage free with access to the outside. According to Wikipedia, “Organic egg producers cannot use antibiotics except during an infectious outbreak. Only natural molting can occur within the flock; forced molting is not allowed. (Molting is forced by starving the hen for weeks at a time). Organic certification also means maintaining of high animal welfare standards, which prohibit any cutting off of beaks or wings without anesthesia, methods common until today in (the) poultry industry.” Hens cannot be given growth hormones and the USDA inspects the farm before they are allowed to use the “organic label.”

(Please note that organic certifications and regulations vary from country to country and province to province, so check on the certification requirements for your area).

Free-Range (or Cage-Free) Eggs

A new study from Mother Earth Newsproves that pasture-raised chickens produce superior eggs with less cholesterol, less saturated fat, twice the omega-3 fatty acids, 3 times the vitamin E, 7 times more beta carotene, 2/3 more vitamin A, and 4-6 times as much vitamin D!

Unfortunately, while free-range chickens raised for meat must meet specific standards, there is no legal definition for free–range eggs and there are no standards. Free-range doesn’t necessarily mean pasture raised. Free-range hens are supposed to have access to the outside. But there is no regulation as to how long they are outside, how much room they are to be given, or about any of the standards that deem them “free-range.” Some reports claim many free-range chickens are caged. Plus these birds can still be given antibiotics, animal byproducts, and food from GMO crops. They may live in an overcrowded situation and may or may not have access to nests and perches.  In other words, they are probably not what you thought they were.

Free-Run Eggs

This is one of those terms that sound like the hens are having the time of their life, but in fact, they are usually kept indoors in large barns. They are not allowed to go outside and it may be overcrowded.

Antibiotic Free Eggs

According to the USDA, this label can be used on beef and poultry products, provided that the producer supplies “sufficient documentation … that the animals were raised without antibiotics.”

Hormone Free Eggs

This label applies only to beef, says the USDA. Since hormones are not supposed to be given to pigs or chickens, pork and poultry products cannot legally be tagged with this label without the disclaimer “Federal regulations prohibit the use of hormones.”

Fed Vegetarian Feed, All-Natural, Farm Fresh, Omega-3 Eggs

ChickenOut! says, “These words and images on egg cartons mean nothing as far as animal welfare is concerned. In fact, eggs in these cartons are from hens in cages.”

Amish Eggs

Some people think Amish eggs are the most natural. Ariane Daguin, co-owner of D’Artagnan, a Newark-based supplier of Amish chicken to New York restaurants and markets told the New York Times, “It’s a marketing ploy. It doesn’t mean anything.” The mystique of the Amish label, Ms. Daguin said, comes from its ‘’aura of naturalness.” Chickens raised on Amish farms do not always eat vegetarian feed. Nor are they more likely to be free-range or free-roaming. Read From Gravy to Jus, Now ‘Amish’ Is Trendy

The Bottom Line

It seems that out of all the practices, organic is best. Chickens raised organically are the only chickens with guaranteed welfare standards in place. Organic eggs are becoming an overwhelmingly popular choice for many egg consumers, not only for their fresh taste, but for the ethics involved in the raising and handling of the hens. But according to the USDA, “Only 1 percent of dairy cows and less than 1 percent of chickens are raised in accordance with these standards.” So be sure to check your labels carefully.

May 2011 Update: Vital Farms sell highly nutritious organic eggs raised by healthy, humanely treated chickens. If you can’t raise your own chickens, these are the best we know of.



Stephanie Dickison
Stephanie Dickison's The 30-Second Commute: A Non Fiction Comedy About Writing and Working From Home covers her career as pop culture, music, book and restaurant critic.
Stephanie Dickison

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