Eggs became a popular topic in the summer of 2010 because of the millions of eggs needing to be recalled by the Wright County Egg company due to potential risk of salmonella. By Aug. 18, 2010 the recall was announced to include 228 million eggs, a week later this number expanded significantly. Another egg company, Hillandale, had its own major egg recall shortly after Wright County Egg issued their notices.
Eggs are used in so many ways that the food item is a staple in many kitchens, restaurants and institutions. Not only for eating, but using in other products such as health and beauty aids. In response to the massive recall that year, many consumers rightfully became highly concerned about the quality of eggs they are purchasing and began questioning just how they were being produced.
Over the years many types of eggs being sold have been of consumer interest, especially those concerned with treatment of chickens in terms of cruelty and antibiotics. However, these days many individuals are looking more closely at the meaning of free range, cage free and organic eggs. It can get a little fuzzy.
One of the biggest questions consumers often have when purchasing eggs is how to know whether or not the eggs they are buying are what they believe to be. In many instances, consumers are surprised to learn what the different egg labels actually mean. As an example, years ago people used to buy brown eggs as marketers presented them as being "better", however, there is no difference, the color of the egg is determined by the type of hen that laid it.
Here is a rundown of the differences between free-range, cage free and organic which can help serve as a guide in the U.S. market when buying eggs:
Free range means chickens are allowed outside of cages and buildings, but it doesn't stipulate a designated amount of time for chickens to be allowed to do so. Also this does not guarantee chickens were not fed any substances such as hormones, antibiotics or pesticides.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulations for free range eggs states:
"Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." According to the Egg Safety Board, outside the United States, free-range "denotes a method of farming husbandry where the animals are allowed to roam freely instead of being contained in any manner."
Additionally, a CNN report, published in 2010 at the time of the massive recall said:
"While some egg producers are truly free-range, and the chickens remain outdoors for a good deal of the time, there is nothing preventing a factory farm from labeling eggs as free range, merely because the structure in which the chickens live has a door to an outside yard." 2
That being the case, these days “free range” doesn’t mean as much as we used to think it did However, depending on the farmer, it could be what consumers are looking to buy in terms of animal welfare. It's important to check the source.
Consumers wanting eggs from chickens that roam free, peck, eat bugs and do all the things they used to do in natural environments can also look for “pastured” eggs. Although, this too is not a highly regulated term.
This video explains the difference between caged, cage free, free range and pastured.
Cage free means the hens are typically kept inside an enclosed building. While it is better than keeping chickens cooped up in battery cages, cage free should not exactly evoke the image of happily moving free roaming chickens either.
What it does mean is chickens are allowed to spread their wings, but they are still pretty much cooped up either all or most of their day. This does not mean that the chickens were not fed antibiotics, all it means is the chickens do not live in cages. It does not imply cruelty-free practices for egg production, in some cases beaks are partially burned off.
Organic eggs can be labeled as such which signifies the eggs were produced in an environment where the chickens were not in cages. What it also means is the hens consumed organic feed which did not contain any substances such as antibiotics, hormones, synthetic pesticides, fungicides, herbicides, or fertilizers. "Organic" is one of the labels the U.S. government is more stringent on and certain criteria must be met (unlike the commonly and highly overused "natural" commonly found on food labels). GMOs are not supposed to be in any food products claiming to be organic.
[Related reading: How to Avoid Consuming Monsanto's Glyphosate Herbicide ]
It is important to know that being labeled organic does not mean the hens were given access to the outdoors or the ability to freely roam around, although the hens certainly could have this ability. Additionally, it is important to keep in mind, some local farmers may not be able to afford to be certified as “organic” (due to the costs involved with meeting strict criteria), however, these farmers do often farm based on organic practices. Ask around your area and talk to local farmers.
Chickens wandering around a public-owned farm/park in Fairfax County, January 2015. In the busy months these chickens are in a coop, with indoor and outdoor access. In the winter months, when it's less crowded, these chickens can be seen wandering pretty much along the same paths and areas we walked on.
Traditionally, prices for organically-produced eggs have been more expensive, however, this could change if current demand continues to increase. The other possibility is more stringent government regulation on the mass producers to reduce safety risks of consumer consumption of eggs.
While many farmers are truly dedicated to not using cages, allowing chickens to roam freely and employ organic approaches to raising chickens and producing eggs, there are those that do not. Additionally, there is no guarantee illness may not arise from any egg products, but the chances are the cruel method of “battery caged” chickens are more likely to produce contaminated eggs due to the unsanitary and closed conditions in which they live.
Whatever the case it is always a good idea to know what you're eating and how to read labels. Demystifying and understanding "egg lingo" can help make an educated decision when choosing which eggs to purchase at what price. In some instances, the designated price may not be worth the cost if the eggs are not truly what you think you're buying.
[ Related reading: Ways Food Labels are Deceptive]