The varied and often misleading terminology that is used to describe the living conditions of egg laying chickens can often make the egg aisle a daunting and confusing place for conscious consumers.
So let’s get down to the nitty-gritty: what is the real difference between Cage-free, Free-range, Organic, and Pasture-raised eggs?
Conventional (No Classification)
When conventional eggs are not labeled with any of these terms the chickens are generally kept in tiny battery cages, often as small as 67 square inches (thats slightly less than 8 1/4 inches on each side!), which they can share with up to 6 fellow birds. Good Earth refuses to sell this type of eggs.
This term is regulated by the USDA and only means precisely what it says: the chickens may not be raised in cages. This generally results in the birds being raised in large, indoor, multi-level aviaries, which tend to be overcrowded. The hens are not required to have any access to the outside, much less open pastures.
This term is also regulated by the USDA and, although it paints the picture of chickens running free in an open pasture, this is very rarely the case. The USDA requires only that free-range chickens have some access to the outdoors, without any specifics as to how easy to find or traverse the path to the outside must be, or how nice the outdoor area has to be once they get there. This means that in practice, ‘access’ is usually nothing more than a few small doors that lead to a screened in outdoor area that can be just concrete or dirt.
Organic (Cage-Free or Free-Range)
There is a new USDA rule going into effect in the near future which requires that all certified organic egg laying hens (cage-free, free-range, and pasture raised varieties) have easy access to the outdoors. The rule further specifies that the outdoor areas need to include vegetation or soil and may not be just an enclosed porch. Similarly to Pasture Raised birds, this will allow hens to exhibit their natural behaviors and eat their natural diet. Luckily, the USDA acknowledges that most Organic producers already abide by this rule. Organic producers also treat their hens more humanely than their conventional counterparts, and feed them a certified organic diet.
Pasture Raised or Pastured
The term pasture raised is not officially regulated by the USDA. Farmers currently use this term to communicate to consumers that their chickens are given access to the outside, above and beyond the requirements of free-range. These chickens are generally provided ample access to a grassy pasture where they are able to move around freely, eat their natural diet of grass, seeds, and bugs, and have access to a barn in which they can shelter from cold, inclement weather, or predators. Pasture-raised farms generally have more than enough pasture for all of the chickens, which allows the farmer to rotate which section of pasture the chickens graze on, to keep the soil and grass healthy and plentiful.
Due to the omnivorous diet of pasture raised chickens, their eggs taste particularly rich and delicious! They also have lower cholesterol and saturated fat, as well as more vitamin A, E, beta carotene, and omega 3 fatty acids.
Here at Good Earth, we strive to provide our customers with a full range of poultry stewardships, which affects our range of price points. We actively pursue relationships with our producers in order to ensure the integrity of our producers pasture raised claims.