Let The Hens Out! Cage Free Eggs
“Cage free” eggs have been at the center of deep discussion among consumers, animal welfare advocates, and egg producers. As a result, the poultry industry is changing how they raise their egg laying chickens. By 2025, the US egg supply will be predominantly cage free. So what exactly does “cage free” mean? How are chicken producers responding to consumer demand for transparency? What does this mean for the welfare of the chicken? Let’s take a look.
As it turns out, going cage-free requires much more planning, money, and logistical engineering than the seemingly simple notion of setting some hens free would suggest. Ironically, this massive supply chain overhaul stems from consumer demand to return to the egg-producing practices of our pre-industrial past, but without undoing all the positive benefits of scale, affordability, and safety that were achieved through industrialization. It actually took farmers a really long time to figure out how to put the bird in the cage—and it’s going to take a while to figure out how to get it back out.
(Wired Magazine, 2016)
The Conventional System of Egg Production
So What is A Cage Free Egg?
Eggs labeled “cage-free” or “from free-roaming hens” are laid by hens that are allowed to roam in a room or open area, which is typically a barn or poultry house.
In addition to “cage free” claims, egg producers often participate in additional certification programs with varying claims of improved animal welfare. Here is a chart summarizing some of these marketing claims:
How is Egg Safety Ensured?
Egg and Poultry Facts
There are no nutritional or food safety differences between eggs produced in cage-free or conventional houses. The labels refer to the housing environment where the hens live and produce eggs. When managed properly, all production environments (conventional, enriched cage, cage-free and organic/free range) provide safe, nutritious, quality eggs.
Hormones are banned for use in poultry in the U.S. (but that doesn’t stop chicken producers from marketing their birds as hormone-free!)
Broilers, those chickens raised for meat, are always raised “cage free” in poultry houses. Broilers can be free range or pastured raised as well.
Is cage-free better for the hens?
However the first study to analyze different housing arrangements on a commercial scale basis, from a sustainable perspective was published in 2015 from an industry consortium called the Coalition for a Sustainable Egg Supply. The objective of the Coalition’s research was to evaluate various laying hen housing systems measuring five sustainability factors: food safety, the environment, hen health/well being, worker health/safety and food affordability. The broad coalition was made up of leading animal welfare scientists, academic institutions, non-government organizations, egg suppliers, and restaurant/foodservice and food retail companies.
The study examined three different layer housing systems – conventional cages (used as a baseline), cage-free aviary, and enriched colonies (a hybrid of cage and cage free).
Where does this leave us (and the chickens?)
The Bottom Line:
Under scrutiny from both consumers and animal welfare advocates, the tipping point for cage free eggs has arrived. While there is no nutritional difference between cage free and conventionally raised eggs, egg producers are investing in alternative housing arrangements to raise chickens in a more humane way. Additionally, improvements in technology and animal science and breeding make this an exciting time for growth in the egg business. As consumers, we should support this transition and purchase cage free eggs from the supermarket when possible.
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