What Does Cage-Free Really Mean? Understanding Egg Terminology

What does cage-free really mean? Understanding Cage-Free, Free-Run & More Egg Terminology

When you’re grocery shopping, do you look for cage-free, free-run, organic or “just the regular” eggs?

It can get confusing, all of that terminology at the grocery store.

According to a recent article in the Globe and Mail, how laying hens are raised is becoming big business. Most of the major fast food chains in Canada have committed to sourcing cage-free eggs, driven by consumer demand and competitive pressure.

But what does cage-free mean and how does it compare to all of the other ways that laying hens are raised and housed?

Battery Cages (how most hens are housed):
Your regular eggs come from industrial egg operations where laying hens are housed in what are called battery cages. The more you learn about these cages the more you understand why the demand for an alternative is so important.  

Anywhere from four to eight hens are housed in a battery cage, each having space barely larger than the size of an 8” x 8” pan (67 square inches). They can’t walk around, spread their wings, dust bathe, nest or do anything else that comes naturally. All they can do is eat and lay eggs.

Furnished Cages:
Some industrial operations have moved to furnished cages which offer almost twice the space as battery cages, and have separate areas for nesting and perching. But at 116 square inches per hen, these cages still don’t offer a great amount of space.

Cage-Free/Free-Run Eggs:
Cage-free (or free-run), the housing method favoured by so many fast food restaurants, means that the hens are in open barns so are free to run around and do the sorts of things that come naturally to hens, although they don’t have access to the outside.

It sounds like a good alternative but there is more to the story. The mortality rate for hens in cage-free systems is higher than in caged systems (overcrowding can still be a problem).  Hens can get nasty, and cannibalism and pecking one another become more of a problem in a cage-free environment.

Free-Range Eggs:
Free-range is something altogether different. These hens are in open barns or huts and have access to the outside.

Certified Organic Eggs:
Certified organic eggs are a like free-range plus: they are fed certified organic feed, given nest boxes,  perches and dust bathing materials and have more space to roam, inside and out.

Free-range eggs are an easier-to-find option now that seasonal markets are starting to open again. Some farmers have photos of their hens so you can see that they’re scratching around the barnyard doing what hens love to do.

Of course, there is always the option to have a few ofyour own backyard laying hens.

Whatever option you choose, at the very least we should all know the difference among all of the labels, and how our food is raised.

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