The egg section at the grocery store is a lot more confusing than it should be. Not only are there eggs of different sizes and colors available, as well as regular and organic options, but there are also different notations on the cartons about the way the eggs have been produced—and some of them sound awfully similar. Case in point: cage-free eggs and free-range eggs. Since both labels contain the word “free,” it seems like the hens in both situations are clucking around the fields, with music playing and a soft wind billowing through their feathers. Unfortunately, that’s likely nowhere close to most hens’ realities.
The USDA notes that “eggs packed in USDA grade–marked consumer packages labeled as cage-free are laid by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water.” Unfortunately, this isn’t as delightfully “free” as it may sound. The regulation doesn’t say anything about the space requirement, which means that quarters may actually be pretty cramped. It does, however, go on to say that farmers “must allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors and include enrichments such as scratch areas, perches, and nests. Hens must have access to litter, protection from predators and be able to move in a barn in a manner that promotes bird welfare.”
OK, so what’s the deal with eggs of the free-range variety? They have the same regulations as those labeled cage-free, plus the hens must have “continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle.” This doesn’t necessarily mean that the hens that laid those eggs ever saw the light of day, just that they had access to the great outdoors. If you’ve had an egg carton in your fridge for a while, try this easy, no-fail test to see if the eggs are still good.
Which one is better?
According to the USDA, “free-range and cage-free eggs specifically denote the environment in which the laying hens were housed in”—and that’s it. At present, the USDA says it “does not have definitive scientific data stating a nutritional difference in egg nutrition, due to hen housing.” It’s up to you to decide, however, how important the hens’ living conditions are to you. To find out which egg producers truly treat their hens well, you should do a bit of research.
One more thing to note: If you see a label that says pasture-raised, the birds must be placed on an actual pasture with living vegetation for six hours each day, according to the Humane Society. That said, pasture-raised eggs are not regulated by the USDA and are instead given that designation by Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) and its Certified Humane program.
So, now that you’ve got the lowdown on your egg options, what should you do with the ones you choose? Try this secret technique for an extra-fluffy omelet.