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Standing in front of the egg cooler at a grocery store can be daunting. You’re met by dozens of options. There are some in foam cartons with little information while others sport images of rolling fields and happy, healthy-looking chickens along with terms like “cage-free,” or claim to be “Animal Welfare Certified”. Though reaching for the eggs with “humane” labeling may seem like the most ethical choice, the reality behind the label might not be much more ethical at all.
Simply put, cage-free eggs are laid by hens who do not live their lives in cages. Most eggs sold as cage-free come from hens housed in large sheds, with no access to the outdoors. There are additional classifications of eggs such as free-range and pasture-raised that signify that hens have had greater access to the outdoors. But in spite of these labels, the reality for laying hens is that regardless of their housing, they are genetically modified to lay an enormous and unhealthy number of eggs.
The United States Department of Agriculture provides guidelines for eggs labeled as “cage-free”. The department’s guidance includes requirements that hens are able to roam both vertically and horizontally in indoor houses; that they have access to fresh food, water, and litter; that they can engage in natural behaviors; and that their environment is provided with enrichments such as perches. Though these expectations may lead one to believe that there is exemplary welfare for hens raised to lay eggs in these facilities, the reality for hens in the many factory farms labeling their eggs as cage-free is generally grim.
The primary difference between regular and cage-free eggs is that the hens that lay regular eggs are housed in battery cages, whereas those that produce cage-free eggs are not. In 2019, 28 percent of eggs were laid by hens raised in cage-free housing. The remaining roughly 70 percent were still being raised to lay regular eggs and lived in battery cages. Based on guidelines of the United Egg Producers (UEP), a collection of egg farmers that represent the interest of the egg industry, chickens in battery cages should be provided with 67 square inches of space per bird, less than a standard letter size piece of paper (93.5 square inches), while in cage-free systems hens should have at least a square foot of space (144 square inches) per bird. The typical battery cage houses five to ten hens, and is barren apart from a feed trough and a water line, providing virtually no opportunity for hens to express natural behaviors.
The differences between cage-free and organic eggs can be confusing. Some of the largest differences are that hens laying USDA organic eggs must be fed a diet grown organically, be provided with year-round access to sunlight, and have access to the outdoors—although this “outdoor access” can mean access to a concrete slab with a roof and screened-in walls, with no pasture for hens to peck or scratch. Cage-free standards lack even these bare provisions, instead mainly requiring that hens cannot be housed in cages. Farm Forward has worked for years to close loopholes in USDA Organic provisions by supporting the the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices rule, which requires meaningful outdoor access for all animals including egg-laying hens, sets indoor and outdoor space requirements for chickens, restricts physical alterations, adds transport and slaughter protocols, and sets other crucial minimum standards.
Though hens laying cage-free eggs may have slightly more space than those housed in battery cages, as well as more enrichment in their housing, they still suffer from many of the same welfare issues. For example, the incidence rate of osteoporosis in all laying hens has been reported to be near 90 percent due to the sheer number of eggs the hens produce. The percentage of cage-free hens with osteoporosis has been reported to be between 50 and 78 percent. Eventually, the eggs begin to take calcium that would have gone toward building and maintaining a strong skeletal structure. One of the most commonly fractured bones is the keel bone.
Though cage-free systems may provide birds more space than those housed in battery cages, and afford birds limited ability to express natural behaviors such as perching, birds in cage-free systems still suffer from many of the same welfare issues. As a result of modern breeding, most laying hens have osteoporosis, including between 50 and 78 percent of cage-free hens.1 2 Eventually, the eggs begin to take calcium that would have gone toward building and maintaining a strong skeletal structure. One of the most commonly fractured bones is the keel bone. Hens that have been selectively bred to increase high numbers of eggs are also at increased risk of tumors in their oviduct.
Whether the hens are housed in battery cages or are in cage-free housing systems, they are still part of a crowded factory farming system that requires the overuse of antibiotics and provides a breeding ground for disease.
One of the major health concerns specific to eggs is their cholesterol content. A typical large egg contains 186 mg of cholesterol. Before 2015, federal guidelines stated that cholesterol intake should be kept to less than 200mg per day. Later federal guidelines dropped that numeric goal; the 2020-2025 guidelines state instead that cholesterol intake should be “as low as possible” within a healthy diet and that “high LDL cholesterol and high total cholesterol are major risk factors in heart disease and stroke.”3
A 2019 study of more than 29,000 Americans found that egg consumption led to increased cardiac risk.4 Similarly, a 2020 study of more than 400,000 Americans found that substituting plant protein for egg protein led to a 24% lower mortality risk in men and 21% lower mortality risk in women. 5Most of that reduced risk was for cardiovascular disease. Reducing or eliminating eggs in your diet is one sure way to lower your intake of cholesterol.
Though many other animal products have a higher environmental footprint than eggs, egg production still has a negative impact on the environment. One such impact is water pollution. Due to the nature of industrialized egg facilities housing thousands of hens, they produce tons of manure every year. When the manure is applied as fertilizer on agricultural land it is often too much for the surrounding land to absorb and runs off into local waterways and seeps into the ground, polluting the groundwater.
Industrial egg farms, whether raising hens in cages or in aviaries, release considerable levels of ammonia and other air pollutants that negatively affect not just the environment but also the communities that live nearby. The egg farms also attract a large number of flies, rodents, and other animals considered pests.6
Understanding an egg label can be tricky, as the industry employs marketing tactics meant to set the consumer’s mind at ease. Consumers care about improving animal welfare,7 so the industry has a vested interest in making consumers believe they’re buying products that do not cause gratuitous harm to animals. This practice is known as humanewashing.
Eggs that do not display any sort of welfare certification, or use terms such as “natural” or “farm fresh,” are more than likely laid by hens who spend their entire lives in cruel battery cage systems.
Eggs labeled “cage-free” were probably laid by hens who were housed in large sheds rather than cages. One shed can be larger than a football field and contain thousands or even tens of thousands of birds.
The term “free-range” is not regulated by the USDA, meaning that technically any farm can use it. However, if accompanied by the seal of a welfare certification program it could mean a few different things. For example, one major certification, Certified Humane, requires that eggs marketed as “Certified Humane free range” come from hens who have daily access to an uncovered outdoor area that has at least two feet of space for each bird.
The term pasture-raised is another not regulated by the USDA unless a farm explicitly opts in to being inspected. Alternatively, farms can work with welfare certification programs to receive their seal of approval. Standards vary significantly based on the individual certifying body.8
Even conscientious consumers who choose products carefully may not realize that many animal welfare labels are industry marketing programs designed to deceive. Not all certifications are created equal. Labels like United Egg Producers Certified simply reflect standard, abysmal industry practices, while a certification like Animal Welfare Approved provides much more robust assurance that eggs come from genetically healthy hens who have had seasonal access to pasture. Even the best labels that you’re likely to see at most grocery stores don’t meet the expectations most consumers have about how animals are raised. To find labels that fit with your values, check out our interactive label guide.
The reality of the situation is that to lay the almost 100 billion eggs produced in the United States every year for food, animal suffering is unavoidable. Cage-free housing systems may reduce the suffering experienced by hens by a small amount, but the difference between battery cages and cage-free systems is negligible when the birds have been genetically modified to to produce almost 300 eggs a year, which results in eggs stealing calcium that would have gone into building and maintaining the birds’ skeletal structures, weakening them and leading to a high rate of painful bone fractures. Cage-free housing systems serve to make consumers feel better about purchasing eggs and provide a shield for the companies to hide the discomfiting truth behind.
Consumers are increasingly interested in improved welfare for the animals used to produce the foods we eat. Indeed, in a 2022 poll of 1,353 people nationwide, 80 percent of likely voters percent stated that preventing farmed animal cruelty is a matter of personal moral concern. This included 83 percent of Democrats, 80 percent of Independents, and 77 percent of Republicans. Despite the demand for good animal welfare, most consumers have been successfully misled about the degree to which animal suffering occurs on farms that market “cage free” eggs. While these hens may suffer slightly less, the reality is birds raised on “cage-free” farms experience many of the same welfare problems as those raised in cages simply due to the demands placed on their bodies. The best way to prevent them from suffering is to eat as few eggs as possible, and ideally to stop purchasing and eating eggs altogether.
Wilkins LJ, Brown SN, Zimmerman PH, Leeb C, and Nicol CJ., “Investigation of palpation as a method for determining the prevalence of keel and furculum damage in laying hens,” The Veterinary Record 155(18):547-9, 2004.
Nicol CJ, Brown SN, Glen E, et al., “Effects of stocking density, flock size and management on the welfare of laying hens in single-tier aviaries,” British Poultry Science 47(2):135-46, 2006.
United States Department of Agriculture, Dietary Guidelines for Americans: 2020–2025, December 2020, https://www.dietaryguidelines.gov/sites/default/files/2020-12/Dietary_Guidelines_for_Americans_2020-2025.pdf
Zhong VW, Van Horn L, Cornelis MC, Wilkins JT, Ning H, Carnethon MR, Greenland P, Mentz RJ, Tucker KL, Zhao L, et al. Associations of dietary cholesterol or egg consumption with incident cardiovascular disease and mortality. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2728487
Huang J, Liao LM, Weinstein SJ, Sinha R, Graubard BI, Albanes D. Association between plant and animal protein intake and overall and cause‐specific mortality. JAMA Intern Med. 2020; 180:1173–1184. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2768358
Molly Watson and Siena Chrisman, “The Foodprint of Eggs” (Foodprint, September 2018), https://foodprint.org/reports/the-foodprint-of-eggs/#section_6
Marta E. Alonso, José R. González-Montaña, and Juan M. Lomillos, “Consumers’ Concerns and Perceptions of Farm Animal Welfare,” Animals 10, no. 3 (March, 2020), https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10030385.
Animal Welfare Institute. “A Consumer’s Guide to Food Labels and Animal Welfare,” (Animal Welfare Institute, June 2019), https://www.awionline.org/sites/default/files/uploads/documents/FA-AWI-Food-Label-Guide-Full.pdf.