Defining “Free Range” and “Cage Free” Eggs

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Pick up any carton of eggs and you’re likely to see a plethora of ‘buzz’ words on them, all designed to catch your attention and entice you to buy them. Words like ‘cage free’ and ‘free range’ and ‘vegetarian diet’ and even ‘omega 3’ all swim in front of your eyes. What do they all mean? Is one better than the other? Are they gimmicks or do they have validity?

Cage free means that the chickens were not kept in cases or cages. Usually, however, they are still confined in a building in very close quarters with very little room to move and little or no access to outdoors. When we think ‘cage free’ often we picture happy chickens roaming around the barnyard.

When we think ‘free range’, we might imagine chickens roaming the countryside. In fact, free range is not quite as free as one would like to think. The term ‘free range’ means that the chickens were allowed access to the outside. It does not specify for how long or what the quality of the ‘outside access’ is. It could literally mean that a door at the end of the building which houses the chickens is left open which, technically, could provide ‘outside access’.

Vegetarian diet and grain fed are relatively the same term. Vegetarian diet sounds great and healthy even. Fresh vegetables and fruits galore. It’s terrific, with one, tiny little caveat. Chickens are carnivores. They like to eat insects. Have you ever watched a chicken roam around on a farm? Or perhaps in your neighbor’s back yard? They hunt and peck and scratch. They are looking for juicy little morsels of buggy goodness. A chicken raised on a vegetarian diet is likely being fed industrialized grain (with a high probability of said feed being GMO) and never allowed outside.

Omega 3 eggs come from hens whose diet includes flax seed or fish oil. While omega 3 fatty acids can play an important role in a healthy diet, they can be easily found in their natural sources (flax seeds, fatty fish, walnuts) and it is not necessary to consume ‘omega 3 eggs’. Also, as with the vegetarian diet fed chickens, it is highly likely that they are never allowed outside and are kept in cramped quarters.

Pasture raised means that the chickens are raised outside, in a pasture. In their natural habitat, if you will. They have free access to roam at will, consume all of the lovely insects they would like and have access to shelter (usually a barn or hen house). Some pasture raised hens are fed a supplemental grain diet as well.

Some of the USDA regulations seem to be loosely interpreted by the egg industry as a marketing ploy in an effort to entice consumers to purchase their product (eggs). Cage free and free range sound great until you read the USDA guidelines and realize that it doesn’t quiet mean what the advertising implies it is. So which is best? Well, it is a matter of what is important to you. If you are like me, you would like to know that your chickens were treated with care, allowed free access to a barnyard filled with delicious insects and gorged themselves silly on them.

 

Oh give me a home, where the chickens do roam….

 

 

 

 

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