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.