THE DETAILS: Penn State's study, published recently in the journal Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems found that pastured hens—ones kept outside on different pastures where they can exhibit natural behavior and forage for bugs and grasses—boasted higher vitamin and omega-3 fatty acid levels when compared to their commercially fed, battery-cage-kept counterparts. Eggs from pastured hens contained twice as much vitamin E and 2.5 times more total omega-3 fatty acids as the eggs from caged birds contained.
Congress recently introduced a bipartisan bill, the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, that would require all eggs purchased by the federal government (for school lunch programs, prisons, the military, and so forth) come from cage-free operations. California and Michigan have already voted to phase out cages in laying hen operations, and there will be a similar measure on Ohio's upcoming voting ballot.
This all brings up an important issue: What exactly does cage-free mean? And how about all of the other labels we're likely to see on an egg carton?
WHAT IT MEANS: There are dozens of claims that manufacturers can make on egg cartons. Some of them are meaningful, but others are just ways to trick consumers into thinking they're buying eggs from happy chickens. (Remember, 90 percent of chicken eggs produced in this country come from the worst type of production system—battery cages.)
In an ideal situation, you would purchase your eggs from a local farmer in your area who raises chickens on pasture with plenty of space per bird, and uses moveable, open-air chicken houses, sometimes called chicken tractors, to protect the birds from predators. (You can look for this type of farmer on LocalHarvest.org.) Of course, you could also raise backyard chickens, if you have what it takes.
Eliminating cruel chicken cages is a matter of human health as well as animal welfare. The farther you take chickens away from their natural behaviors, the worse the quality of their eggs or meat. (See the Humane Society of the United States undercover video below to learn more about battery-cage egg-laying operations. WARNING: CONTAINS SCENES OF ANIMAL CRUELTY.)
"When you put four or five chickens in tiny cages, they can't engage in normal chicken behavior—pecking in the dirt, dusting. If they're in a cage, they can't do any of these things," explains chicken expert Gail Damerow, author of the classic Storey's Guide to Raising Chickens (Storey, 2010). (She hasn't purchased a store-bought egg since 1982.) "The pressure of the wire cages against their feet causes infections, their feathers rub off on the side of the cages. Basically, they're just totally frustrated. They've got nothing to do. They can't run around and eat flies and take dust baths. They just sit and lay eggs—what kind of life is that?" One result of all that stress and cruelty is that confined birds' eggs contain less nutrition than eggs from hens with room to roam.
Here's what the labels on the egg carton really mean:
• "Cage-Free" "Cage-free is certainly not like Old McDonald's farm," explains Paul Shapiro, spokesperson for the Humane Society of the United States. But it's a lot better than battery cages, where most eggs are produced. "Cage-free" means that animals are not kept in cages, but generally they are kept inside in an enclosed building. While this is less than ideal, at least this setup gives animals a chance to spread their wings and lay eggs in nest boxes, which is closer to their natural behavior. Cage-free does not imply antibiotics were not used on hens.
• "Free-Range" or "Free-Roaming" Usually these types of operations allow chickens outside of cages in barns or warehouses, but they aren't required to provide the animals any specific amount of time outside—or even exposure to sunlight indoors. There's no third-party inspection required for free-range claims, and the chickens can be debeaked or forced into molting through starvation, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
• "Organic" A USDA-certified organic label means the eggs came from hens that were not enclosed in battery cages, and that must be offered access to the outdoors. However, this doesn't guarantee that the animals ever go outside. Organic eggs come from hens that were fed certified-organic feed, free of antibiotics, pesticides, and other animal products. Forced molting and debeaking are permitted in certified-organic production. Annual inspections are required.
• "Natural" This means that the finished product hasn't undergone certain unnatural processes; in this case, that product is the egg. However, just because eggs are labeled natural doesn't mean a hen wasn't pumped up with antibiotics or other unnatural substances. And it certainly doesn't mean the chickens were raised in clean, humane conditions. For all intents and purposes, natural means nothing.
• "Pastured" Pastured chickens should be housed on grassland in portable shelters that are periodically moved to give the chickens fresh pasture, but there's no third-party inspection required to ensure that's what's really happening. Your best bet is to buy eggs from pastured hens at a local farm that raises the hens organically, ensuring they're not exposed to pesticides, animal by-products, or antibiotics.
• "Omega-3-Enriched" This means hens were fed feed with an increased amount of omega-3-rich flaxseeds. However, pasture-raised hens are already higher in beneficial omega-3s, and they get to be outside. Technically, caged hens could also be fed flax feed, so don't equate this label with better living standards.
• "Certified Humane" This means birds are not kept in cages, but they can be kept indoors. They at least have the space to perform natural behaviors. The program of Human Farm Animal Care sets limits on the number of birds that can be contained in the same area, and outside inspectors perform audits. The program does not, however, require that the animals eat organic feed.
• "United Egg Producers Certified" Shapiro says this, along with "natural," is one of the most misleading claims made on an egg carton. While forced molting is prohibited under this certification, debeaking is allowed, along with other cruel and inhumane practices, such as the use of battery cages.