It used to be you only had brown and white eggs to choose from. But now grocery stores offer cage-free, free-range, and even pasture raised eggs. Maybe you think they’re all the same? I mean, they all come from the same place, right? Well, I’m going to explain the differences, in particular, of pasture raised eggs and the others.
What are Caged Eggs
Caged eggs come from hens that are basically housed in battery cages. This is the most common method for industrial egg production. So ~85% of US eggs are from caged hens. And that means the birds are stuck in cages for their egg-laying lives in roughly 67 square inches. Also, they’re fed a corn or soy diet.
In my own opinion, I understand why the industrial egg producer keeps their hens in this situation. Since they’re dual-purpose birds, when the hens are no longer laying eggs, (at the industrial level ~ 2-3 years old), they’ll slaughter them, package the meat, and sell to a specialty grocery store. Because a 3 year old hen, that’s gotten plenty of exercise, is a tough old bird in terms of food. So, the less space they have to move in, the better they’ll taste when those farmers cash in on those hens for the last time. Thus, it’s more economical for the farmer to keep their egg-producing hens confined this way.
However, some industrial egg producing farmers send the hens to a landfill or make them into pet food. I wouldn’t do any of those options, because my birds are like my pets. But I’m also not a commercial egg producer.
What are Cage-Free Eggs
As of March 2021, about 29% of eggs sold in US grocery stores were from cage-free hens. In addition, these hens have a little more space, than caged hens, with a little less than one-square foot each. Furthermore, they’re living in barns, and like their counterparts, they don’t have access to the outdoors. And they also have a diet consisting of corn or soy.
What are Free-Range Eggs
According to the National Chicken Council, (yes, apparently there’s a chicken council), less than 1% of chickens are considered free-range in the US. Additionally, these hens have more room than either caged and cage-free hens with 2 square feet each. And they have access to the outdoors. Although there’s not really a consistent standard on how long the birds get to be outdoors or what the space is like. Also, they too are fed a diet of corn or soy.
What are Pasture Raised Eggs
Pasture raised eggs first got their start in 2007 by Matt O’Hayer from Texas. However they didn’t get any steam until cage-free and free-range had already gotten attention. With that being said, there’s not a standard for pasture raised eggs either. But, according to the USDA, pasture raised eggs are laid by hens with more access to the outdoors, and their diet is supplemented with bugs and wild plants.
Although, the best method to determine if the eggs you’re buying are pasture-raised is other labels, such as: Certified Humane Raised and Handled + Pasture Raised, or American Humane Certified and Pasture Raised. If your eggs have either of these labels, then the hens who laid the eggs have access to the outdoors, with 108 square feet per hen. And each hen eats a combination of a balanced feed and whatever they get from foraging: grass, worms, and insects. In addition, they can roam all day and return when it’s time for bed.
Which is More Expensive
As you can well imagine, the most expensive option is going to be the one that is the most humane for the birds. I already mentioned that the most economical way for the farmer was the battery caged method; and that’s because the farmers are sucking every last penny out of those chickens that they can get.
Which is the Healthiest
According to The Egg Nutrition Center, there’s little nutritional difference between all 4 types of eggs. Although, there have been studies showing differences in mineral content based on the type of housing a particular egg was laid in. And Mother Earth News has verified the superiority of true pasture raised eggs to traditional eggs sold in grocery stores several times.
Furthermore, I covered a post on egg facts not too long ago, confirming that hens with access to pastures, grass, and bugs lay richer eggs. And richer eggs just taste better.
What’s Better for the Birds
Obviously allowing chickens all day access to the outdoors is the best policy for the chickens. It’s what they do in nature; it’s what they did before we captured and tamed them for our own use. They can communicate with each other, stretch, roost, forage, and just be birds when they’re truly in a pasture setting. But in the other 3 settings they don’t really get to be the way nature intended; they’re the way we intended, which isn’t the same thing at all.
What’s Better for the Environment
Since we’re considering every option, people and birds, I wanted to include the environment. Because any type of industrial food production has an impact on the environment, which then trickles down to us. However, the only thing I could find on that was based on feed. And that really applies to all of the egg-producing systems. Apparently any type of egg production leaves behind a pretty steep carbon footprint due to the embedded emissions in concentrate feed.
Therefore, if industrial chicken or egg farmers could find an alternative feed for their birds, that doesn’t produce as many greenhouse gases, then it would be better for the environment. Of course the feed should also consist of a balanced diet for the birds.
There are 4 types of eggs to choose from at the grocery store. Since labels can be confusing, you need to know how to read them. Caged eggs make up the vast majority on grocery store shelves. While cage-free hens are in somewhat better living conditions, they still represent a small percentage. Even though free-range and pasture raised have access to the outdoors, there still isn’t a standard for commercial egg producers.
However, if you’re interested in animal welfare, then look for those kinds of labels. But if you see labels for organic, that has nothing to do with the bird’s welfare; it just means the bird was fed a vegetarian diet, free from antibiotics and pesticides.
If you have neighbors with backyard birds, know they treat their birds well, and you have the means, buy some eggs from them. That way you’ll be supporting your very local community and get to enjoy the benefits of farm fresh eggs, which are true pasture raised eggs.
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