Most egg-laying chickens are cooped up in a cage for their entire egg-laying lives. But as consumers become more aware of living conditions in battery cages on large poultry farms, there is growing demand for meat and eggs from hens that are treated humanely.
For poultry farmers to use the "free-range" label for their eggs or chicken, they must:
- not keep hens enclosed in cages, i.e. cage-free
- allow outdoor access for the hens. The government does not have any requirements around what the outdoor environment should be like, or how much time chickens get to spend outdoors.
Cage-free vs Free-range
At any given time, there are about 300 million egg-laying hens on farms in the U.S. A majority of these birds are kept in battery cages—small enclosures where several birds are crammed in. Caged birds suffer from poor living conditions—they have no room to move around, their stress levels are very high and, not surprisingly, they are aggressive toward each other. Cages are filthy, increasing the risk of bacterial infections and necessitating the use of antibiotics (which is bad practice when done on a precautionary basis rather than to treat an existing infection).
Caged chickens, by definition, have almost no opportunity to live naturally, and sometimes share their cages with dead chickens. Caged chickens are usually kept battery cages their entire productive life; they can barely stand up, cannot spread their wings, and are denied natural behaviors like roosting, nesting, perching and bathing.
Cage-free birds live in aviaries large enough to hold thousands of birds. These are industrial barns where there is about 1 square foot of space available per hen. A research study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply found that benefits of cage-free aviaries for the birds include more natural behavior, stronger bones and more feathers. But cage-free birds also face risks—mortality rate is much higher (slightly more than 10%) than caged birds (about 5%) because of pecking by other birds. And without access to the outdoors, the quality of indoor air in aviaries can be poor.
Free-range in theory means cage-free with access to the outdoors. However, there is no other requirement around this access. While free-range chickens have some opportunity to experience natural behaviors, how much opportunity is entirely unregulated and unmonitored. In fact, a majority of free-range birds actually do not venture outdoors because the outdoor environment is often simply a fenced porch with little to no grass, bushes or worms. So in practice, free-range and cage-free provide the same living conditions.
Pasture-raised chickens have the best living conditions among poultry farms today. They are not confined in cages or aviaries, spending most of their time outdoors where they have access to a natural diet of insects and worms.
The organic label is tightly regulated. In order to qualify for this label, the chickens
- must be free-range (but not necessarily pasture-raised).
- must be fed an organic diet. For example, if they are fed corn feed then the corn should be organic and there should be no synthetic pesticides used in growing that corn.
- must not receive any hormones or antibiotics.
Nutrition and Taste
What chickens eat and how much they are treated with hormones and antibiotics are the biggest influencers on the nutritional value, flavor, and even safety for human consumption of their eggs and meat. While there are no organizations monitoring the validity of caged and free-range chicken nutrition, the assumptions can be made that
- Grain fed chickens will have richer, fattier meat,
- Organic chickens will have more flavorful eggs with thicker shells, and flavorful meat with less fat and chemical additives, and
- 100% natural chicken meat and eggs will be healthier for human because the chickens will have lived on the best foods, without chemicals, and in healthy environments.
However, if free-range chickens are living outdoors in polluted environments, they may be eating things from feces to industrial pollutants that make their meat and eggs less healthy than grain-fed battery-caged chickens. Ultimately, claims as to the environment in which the chickens are raised, their nutrition and care, and what that means to the consumer are loosely regulated and monitored for both caged and cage-free chickens.
Free Range's Environmental Benefits
A Newcastle University (U.K.) study of the environmental impact of caged vs. free-range meat and egg chicken farming concluded that the costs of free-range farming are greater, and the negative environmental impact is not necessarily less.
The production cycle for meat is longer for free-range chickens as they don't have the rich food and inactive environment and don't plump as quickly, hence manure production is higher. However, energy use -- electricity, gas, oil -- was generally lower. Conversely, in the egg layers, caged birds produced less manure and required higher energy draws, especially for heat.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are responsible for determining the definitions that specify how chickens are raised and what their environmental and agricultural conditions mean to consumers.
Legally, the only condition that delineates caged chickens from free-range chickens is that the latter must have access to the outdoors. How much access, and other factors like diet, treatment with hormones and antibiotics, and processing of eggs and meat are not stipulated in this delineation.
In fact, consumers should not confuse the concept of organic with free-range; while it is much more likely free-range chickens that are also free-roaming (seldom indoors) are raised organically, this is not necessarily so. Nor is it impossible for caged chickens to be raised organically, although it is rarely done in large-scale commercial operations.
Fundamentally, chicken agribusiness is regulated, and facilities inspected not for the health and welfare of the chickens, but to determine that the business practices are creating food for human that are safe consumables. The USDA and FDA perform these inspections.
- The FDA inspects raw, shelled eggs (for problems like salmonella) and the USDA inspects processes eggs, like dried, frozen and liquid.
- The USDA is responsible for keeping pollutants (i.e. manure piles) away from egg production, but the FDA is responsible for making sure that pollutants haven't tainted the eggs or meat.
In November 2008, California voters passed Proposition 2, a measure that mandates
an enclosure containing nine (9) or more egg-laying hens shall provide a minimum of 116 square inches of floor space per bird.
The measure went into effect six years later on January 1, 2015. The estimated impact of the measure includes a fall in the number of egg-laying hens in California (by 23%), and a rise in egg prices (by 35%). However, over time this impact will reduce as the costs get amortized over several years.
- Farm Fresh? Natural? Eggs Not Always What They're Cracked Up To Be - NPR
- Organic Egg Scorecard - The Cornucopia Institute
- Research Study Report by CSES (PDF)
- Predicting the Environmental Impacts of Chicken Production Systems
- Piles of manure under chickens in battery cages (video)
- How California's New Rules are Scrambling the Egg Industry - NPR
- Animal Welfare Approved