Buying eggs shouldn't be complicated or confusing, but leave it to the large poultry industry to muddy the waters so much you don't know if you're buying eggs from a clucking hen out in the fields or one that has been crammed into a cage her whole life. Greenwashing is a problem, and phrases like free-range and cage-free can leave us thinking we're doing the right thing when in reality it's just clever marketing!
So what should you be looking for when buying eggs?
We know we've said it many times, but if you're able to zip down to your closest farmers market and buy your eggs directly from a farmer, it really doesn't get better than that! You can chat with the farmer about how they raise their hens, what the birds' living conditions are, what they eat (hopefully the bugs in the field!), and anything else you'd like to know. Chances are a smaller farm at a market will have more responsible practices, and you can really get a sense of whether or not the chickens live a happy life by getting to who raises them.
However, we know this isn't always possible. So if you're buying eggs from the grocery store, this is what you need to know to decipher all those confusing labels.
Cage-free: this sounds nice because who wants to imagine thousands of chickens stuffed in cages, but in reality the misleading "cage-free" term is as close to caged (without technically falling into that category) as you can get. According to the USDA, cage-free means that hens were "housed in a building, room, or enclosed area that allows for unlimited access to food, water, and provides the freedom to roam within the area during the laying cycle." Note that the regulation says nothing about a space requirement for each hen or whether or not they ever step outside! Most cage-free hens live their entire lives in a barn (or other similar structure), and that just sounds like a large cage to us!
Free-range: we knew that cage-free was a misleading term, but for a long time we thought that free-range meant buying the happy eggs we were looking for... until we did some digging into its actual meaning. The USDA defines free-range eggs as essentially the same as cage-free except the hens have access to the outdoors. As with any USDA regulation, note the language: access to the outdoors doesn't mean "free to roam outdoors" or even "continuous access to outdoors." According to NPR, it might just mean that the hens had a “few small doors that lead to a screened-in porch with cement, dirt, or a modicum of grass.” So this image of hens free to roam the range might just mean a little door to a concrete patch where they can see the sunlight for a few hours during the day. Not awesome.
Certified Humane: If you see a certified humane label on cage-free eggs, it means that each hen was given at least 1.5 square feet of space. If you see this label on your free-range eggs, it means each hen had at least 2 square feet.
Pasture-raised: From a grocery store standpoint, pasture-raised is as close to that idyllic image of hens roaming around a farm picking at worms and bugs as you can get. Although the pasture-raised classification isn't regulated by the USDA, in order for eggs to be labeled both pasture-raised and certified humane, the hens were given at least 108 square feet to roam outdoors as well as barn access for cover. This ample space for the hens also means farmers are able to rotate pastures to ensure that the flock has fresh food to pick at and the land is kept healthy. Finally, THIS IS WHAT WE WERE SEARCHING FOR!
We won't shy away from the fact that pasture-raised eggs are always among the most expensive cartons on the shelf, but this is where each of us can make the decision on how much we value happy eggs and what farming practices we want to support. We're not going to spend $20 on a dozen of pasture-raised eggs, but when the choice is $5.99 for pasture-raised vs $3.99 for cage-free or free-range, the decision is easy for us. We can spare an extra $2 for happy hens and happy eggs!
Whatever you choose to purchase, at least you now know the difference between the labels and what these certifications actually mean. And never forget how powerful our consumer dollar is!
* The pasture-raised graphic was provided by Vital Farms.