In 2015, a law was enacted in the state of California (that will also begin to affect other states), requiring that the space allowed each hen in commercial poultry farming cages be increased by approximately 68% (From 69 square inches to 116 square inches, from roughly the size of a sheet of letter-sized copy paper to the size of a legal-sized sheet of paper, if you can believe that!) to allow the birds more room to stretch their wings and move around. While hardly able to proclaim these chickens were now laying “free-range eggs,” proponents of the legislation cheered, while others still worried that the increased cage space (or going even further and allowing the chickens to roam cage-free) would actually lead to more illness, pecking, cannibalism, and injuries. Studies have actually proven a higher mortality rate in chickens that aren’t confined. An unhappy egg fact resulting from the new laws is that the dozen eggs price begun to rise as many farms had to reduce the size of their flocks to accommodate the larger cages and some small farmers closed their doors, unable to justify the cost of renovations for increased space. Consumers weren’t happy, farmers weren’t happy, and I doubt your average commercially farmed chicken was cheering about the increased space they were now being allowed.
That same year the McDonald’s fast-food chain announced that over the next decade, they will commit to purchasing the eggs they use from cage-free chicken farms. Again, proponents cheered, while the rest of us wondered why it will take 10 years to accomplish this? And will free-ranging hens ever become the norm for commercial farms?
Both of these announcements are a step in the right direction toward better treatment for commercial layers, but they still have a long way to go. Commercial chickens are still being kept in confined spaces, not given access to quality pasture, nor allowed to do “chicken things” such as perching, dust bathing, and roaming around eating bugs and grass.
You may wonder how to raise free range chickens. Bottom line, raising chickens for eggs in your own backyard, and allowing them as much opportunity to roam as you can (while keeping them safe from predators), or providing them a large enclosed run, is going to result in happier hens that lay healthier eggs. The fact is, for the record, I consider the eggs from my chickens to be “all-natural, farm fresh” eggs from “antibiotic-free, free-range, hormone-free, pasture-raised” chickens. I can’t claim to be raising organic chickens because even though their feed IS organic, I also supplement their diet with non-organic kitchen scraps — and my eggs haven’t been officially certified organic. But, when you shop for eggs at the grocery store, there is a dizzying array of terms of egg facts on the carton. Some very misleading. So here’s a quick guide to three commonly used labels.
Egg Facts on Store Cartons
“Cage-free” does actually mean that the chickens don’t live in cages. But they likely have never even seen the sun or walked on grass. They are probably crammed into a huge warehouse. They are more susceptible to pecking and cannibalism from the other hens than they would be in their individual cases. Also, they walk in their poop and lay their eggs anywhere they please. So, now how much do you want to eat an egg from a cage-free hen?
In order to label a carton of eggs ‘”free-range,” the chickens only need to have access to the outdoors from the barn or coop they live in. And not necessarily grass or even dirt. A square of cement qualifies as long as it’s outside. The average outdoor space per chicken is still sometimes only barely two square feet, and there’s no guarantee that every chicken in a huge commercial barn even manages to find the small door to the outside and might never leave the indoors. Not exactly what you were picturing when you read “free range” is it?
“Pasture-raised” is actually the term you want to see on that carton of eggs you buy if you are at all concerned about the happiness of the chickens laying the eggs you eat. Pasture-raised means that the chickens spend a minimum of 6 hours of the day outdoors—year round—and have a safe barn or other structure to sleep in at night. The pasture can be grassy, field or wooded, but it must have some type of vegetation on it, and must allow a minimum of 108 square feet of space per hen.
So next time you’re in the grocery store, pay close attention to the egg facts on the carton labels and think about how the chicken who laid those eggs in your hand is likely treated. Or even better, why not start a small flock of backyard chickens of your own? Visit my Chicken Care Guide for some tips on getting started.
Originally published in 2015 and regularly vetted for accuracy.