Should I buy cage free or free range eggs?

It's winter, the hens aren't laying as much as they usually do and you need to buy eggs from the store. Now that you are super spoiled on the amazing taste of farm fresh eggs...which eggs should you buy at the store? Hopefully you have a farmers market near you and you can get some backyard chicken or small farm eggs from there. What if you're stuck with shopping at the grocery store? Which eggs are best?

Understanding the words on an egg carton

There are so many different types of eggs on the grocery store shelves. Free range, cage free, pasture raised, with Omega 3's, white, brown and even fertile eggs! It can be really confusing especially when you don't know what the regulations behind the labeling are and how that actually translates into the treatment of the hens. After all, now that we raise our own chickens we want that fresh egg taste from hens that are treated well. Right? 

So let's discuss what all these labels mean, the differences between them and which ones actually mean happy hens and not battery hens in cages!

Understanding egg labels

There are all kinds of different wording on egg cartons. Some are regulated and some are unregulated advertising terms. The USDA is in charge of grading and other egg regulations. If your eggs say Free Range, Cage Free or Organic then you can bet the 'farms' they come from have been inspected and qualify for these designations. However, what the USDA says is free range or what cage free actually means is not often what we're thinking when we hear these terms.

The egg producers have to meet a set of very specific qualifications to for the USDA to allow them to stamp Free Range, Cage Free or Organic on their cartons.

Regulated terms
These are the terms that you cannot use unless you meet the USDA's qualifications.

Cage free eggs

According to the USDA: eggs labeled as cage free are laid by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water

That translates into: the hens do not have to have any outdoor access, real sunshine or fresh air. They are raised in a giant industrial barn (think one of those big metal garages) called an aviary. They can stretch their wings and use a nest box, but that is about the only benefit over being caged.

Free range eggs

According to the USDA: eggs labeled as free range must be produced by hens that are able to roam vertically and horizontally in indoor houses, and have access to fresh food and water, and continuous access to the outdoors during their laying cycle

That translates into: the hens can be raised indoors in an aviary as long as they are not separately caged and have a way to go outside. However, nothing in that says that there has to be grass outside, or even enough space for more than a few to be outside at the same time. They could have a tiny pop door with access to a concrete patio and it still qualifies as free range. It's definitely not the free range our chickens are used to!

Organic eggs

These eggs come from hens that are free range (see above) were fed an all organic diet and receive no hormones or antibiotics. Not necessarily a step up for the hens living in these industrial barn rooms, except their feed is organic. As a side note, hens kept for eggs don't normally receive hormones anyway so that's sort of a moot addition to this designation.

Unregulated terms

In addition to these regulated terms you will often see other unregulated terms on egg cartons. While some of them are easy to understand, others are open to interpretation.

Pasture raised eggs

This is a term not regulated by the USDA but is generally understood to mean the chickens were raised on open pasture. Of course since there is no regulations to adhere to the hens could have limited time on pasture. Generally though it means that they do spend most of their daylight hours outside. Some farms rotate pastures, moving the chickens every so often to provide a fresh supply of bugs and grasses. Others have a singular pasture. Some are quite crowded and other rather spacious.

Vegetarian eggs

I'm going to put this as plainly as possible...chickens are not vegetarians and feeding them as such in unhealthy and practically impossible. Chickens are omnivores. Unless they are raised in a bubble they will eat any bit of meat they can get like bugs, mice or lizards. I once chased Serebelle across the yard trying to get a frog from her. She swallowed it whole! 

Any bit of tiny living creature they get will be consumed, so it's virtually impossible for them to have a fully vegetarian diet. Chickens poop and spill food that attracts bug and mice, chickens eat said bugs and mice. However, some are fed a vegetarian diet completely devoid of animal proteins and byproducts to appease some customers. This is not good for them. The need the proteins and amino acids that meat provides. 

This is no indication of the living situation of the hens, so they could be raised in overcrowded battery cages. In fact, they would have to be kept indoors to keep their access to bugs at a minimum. 

Here's an interesting article on Why vegetarian eggs might be a crueler choice.

Omega-3 eggs

This is basically saying the hens eggs have or are higher in Omega-3 fatty acids. I talk about one way to do the with your own hens in the post How to raise the Omega-3 content of hens eggs. Much as I'd like you to go read that I'll sum it up real quick for ya: feed flaxseed. Pretty much the only way to guarantee the hens have high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids is to feed flaxseed, linseed oil or some other supplement.

This is no indication of the living situation of the hens, so they could be raised in overcrowded battery cages.

Fertile eggs

Trader Joe's is one place that sells eggs labeled Fertile. This only means that there is a rooster in with the hens. It does not indicate if the hens are kept in a building or allowed outside or what kind of feed they get. One would assume they would not be in cages, but rather kept together as a flock so the rooster has access to the hens. This does not indicate anything about their diet.

Other terms you might see like Farm Fresh or All Natural can basically mean whatever the producer wants them to mean. In fact, 95% of the eggs produced in the US are from hens living in battery cages on factory farms and they could all still be labeled farm fresh, vegetarian fed, Omega-3 or all natural! Many of these are just advertising words meant to manipulate the consumers perception of the farms or hens the eggs come from. They are often pointless and misleading.

Many times you will see more than one of these terms on a package, like Organic and farm fresh. Unfortunately just because those eggs are certified as organic does not mean they're running around ole McDonalds farm. They're probably in a big metal aviary, but the packaging makes it sound good!  

Understanding terms on egg cartons.

Trying to unravel which brands treat their hens humanely can be quite difficult! After all, none of us have the time to research every single farm out there! However, I found this Organic Egg Scorecard online that lists how hens are kept and a rating based on the info they have. I happen to buy Vital Farms when I'm not home and I'm glad they score a 4, but will be looking for eggs from the companies that are 5 from now on!

Best eggs to buy

So where does that leave us when shopping for eggs? You'll find pasture raised eggs will taste most like the fresh eggs you're used to from your own hens. These companies are also likely to have the best living situation for their hens. If you can find pasture raised eggs with the Animal Welfare Approved symbol then these are your best choice! These farms have gone through voluntary inspection that Guarantees animals are raised outdoors on pasture or range for their entire lives on an independent farm using sustainable, higher-welfare practices.  

Personally, it's hard for me to buy eggs in the store. I take my own eggs with me as much as possible, even on vacation! Sometimes that isn't an option though and that's when I either do without or pay more for eggs from well treated hens. We already spend a lot on our chickens care, so tossing down $5 for a dozen eggs is kinda hard. I do it though, because I feel better about making a good choice that doesn't support battery cages and factory farms, while still getting that familiar fresh egg taste we've come to know!


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  1. I'm lucky enough to have 28 laying hens, so I have never gone without my own eggs, even in the dead of winter. I'd have to say they're pretty expensive eggs though. It's a hobby so I spend the money gladly. When the days get longer, my neighbors love the gift of eggs, and my ladies live into old age with no egg quota. I'm happy I don't have to support commercial egg operations by buying eggs and love the eggs I get. I enjoy your newsletter very much. Thanks.

    1. Awwww, I'm so glad that you like the newsletter! It sounds like your hens have it made! Other than when I travel, I very rarely have to buy eggs and when I do it's downright painful! lol I only have about 10 hens right now though, so it happens sometimes. When the guineas start laying in summer, I'll be up to my ears in eggs again!

      Thanks for taking the time to comment!