The Dark Truth About Cage-Free Eggs

April 14, 2015
by Kristina Bravo for Thrive Market
The Dark Truth About Cage-Free Eggs

They can cost twice as much as the regular kind, but are cage-free eggs all they’re cracked up to be?

Say cage-free and most people picture chickens clucking about happily with a big red barn in the background. But as reality goes, a cage-free bird’s life isn’t a verse from “Old MacDonald Had a Farm.”

Many big food companies such as Nestlé and Starbucks recently promised to phase out using eggs from caged hens. Rose Acre Farms and Cal-Maine Foods, two of the largest egg producers in the United States, foresee a cage-free future. This may sound like good news for birds in a country of big egg-eaters (the average American is expected to eat 257.9 eggs in 2015). Consumers however, should still be leery of “cage-free” claims. Here are three reasons why.

“Cage-free” doesn’t mean cruelty-free.

Although there might not be a cage involved, each cage-free bird on average only has 1 foot of space to move around.

The USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which handles labeling claims for eggs, defines cage-free as the confinement of hens in an area—whether it’s an enclosed space, a building or a room—with access to food and water and the ability to roam within this area. According to an FDA report, “while eggs labeled as ‘cage-free’ most likely come from hens not confined to a cage, the housing density may be so high that some of the problems associated with caging are experienced.”

Chet Utterback, who’s in charge of a poultry research farm at the university of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told The Wall Street Journal that cage-free systems are “not better animal welfare, it’s just different animal welfare.”

Neither the USDA nor the FDA verifies the label “cage-free.”

Defining the term (as shaky as the standard is) is as far as the USDA goes. Neither the agency’s AMS nor the FDA pre-approves or makes sure that labeling claims for shell eggs have any basis. Producers can opt to get certification from groups such as United Egg Producers Certified and Animal Welfare Approved. But as with dozens of other food labels, the largely unregulated standards for “cage-free” have allowed producers to use the term as another marketing tool.

The chickens aren’t necessarily healthier.

A three-year study by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply—a group of animal welfare scientists, universities, non-government organizations, egg suppliers, and retail companies—found that cage-free chickens have more feathers and stronger bones. They also show more natural behaviors. But there are trade-offs. Over the study’s course, less than 5 percent of caged chickens died while at least 11 percent of their cage-free counterparts did. A common cause of death: pecking by other birds.

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This article is related to: Agriculture, USDA, Sustainable, Eco-Friendly, Cruelty Free, FDA, Cage-free, Eggs, Chickens

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  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/rbasu Ramanuj Basu

    Question: Where does the stat "the average American is expected to eat 257.9 eggs in 2015" come from?

  • Steve

    The government lets businesses get away with everything. Same with " organic" labeling. Once big business got involved, they more than quintupled foods that can go be called organic. It's all about profit.

  • amadeo

    I look for eggs that are labeled as "pasture-raised". Anyone have statistics on amount of pasture available in these setups? Or is it completely unregulated? The ones I have right now are from The Happy Egg Co. and the carton says they have access to "large grassy fields".

  • Martha

    So, what does that mean, cage-free chickens die more than caged chickens because of pecking by other birds? Is it because they are out in the open and more vulnerable to wild creatures? I think I would rather have this trade-off of natural causes of death than to suffocate and die a miserable death of disease in a cage. Don't you think?

  • wildberrymama

    You may have heard the term "pecking order". We raise chickens (on pasture, but locked up at night for protection from predators) and get to see them put this instinct into practice (It reminds me of a bunch of junior high kids). The chickens peck at each other to determine who is boss, therefore the "lowest" one gets pecked on the most. When the birds have room to roam, they can mind their own business to some extent, but in close quarters there is a lot of pecking. That is why the chickens in their own individual cages have a better survival rate than the ones who live "cage free" with only 1 square foot of personal space. I once had the opportunity to visit a chicken factory farm...a huge putrid smelling building with chickens packing the floor space. The farmer would walk through periodically and pick up the dead chickens and toss them into buckets. UGH.