What are the differences between cage-free, free-range, and normal eggs?
There are several different labels found on egg cartons and each one is created to describe the kind of conditions egg-laying chickens are raised. More often than not, these labels are misleading and cover up the dirty truth as animal welfare claims on labels are not regulated in the United States. Unfortunately, none of the labels actually mean "cruelty free."
In “normal” conditions the hens are crammed together in battery cages so that they cannot move and parts of their beaks are cut off. They are unable to perform natural behaviors such as nesting, perching, and spreading their wings. The label that normally corresponds with these conditions is “United Egg Producers Certified” and most egg producers in the United States follow the guidelines from this program. Diseases are common in these factory farm settings and many hens are denied veterinary care.
The following video is from a Mercy for Animals investigation of an egg farm in California. This is typical of egg farms across the United States.
“Cage-free” means that the hens are not in cages, but generally do not have access to the outdoors. They are kept on the floors of warehouses and barns that are still crowded. However, the hens can move around a bit more than in battery cages, but there are no cage-free standards. Often cage-free hens are still debeaked, which is a painful process, and forced molting through starvation is allowed.
This Mercy for Animals video, “Fowl Play” shows the conditions of a cage-free facility.
The term “free range” has a nice connotation to it. You probably envision a farm pictured in storybooks with rolling hills lush with green grass. Free range is actually much like cage-free, but these hens have access to the outdoors and they are able to engage in natural behaviors. This sounds like a great improvement, but the down side is that there are no standards or regulations. The “access to the outdoors” could mean that the barn door is open for five minutes. There are no standards for amount of time spent outside, space per bird, quantity of birds, or environmental quality. Some free range farms may have better conditions than others, but you will never know the quality of life for the chickens unless you go to the farms and see for yourself.
The following video is an investigation of a free range egg farm in Britain.
This video is an investigation of a free range farm in the United States.
Photo Credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/cursedthing