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Cage-Free Eggs Vs. Regular Eggs: Who Wins?

cage free eggs vs. regular eggs

Cage-free eggs vs. regular eggs: Who Wins? Definitely cage-free eggs. At least in the USA that’s where consumer demand is going. And with the biggest food chains (McDonals, Subway, Starbucks, to name a few) switching away from battery cages to cage-free, well, cage-free will be the clear winner of the next 20 years.

End of article.

Just kidding:) Before we dig in, let’s get the facts straight.

Cage-free is not necessarily cage-free; it may just refer to bigger cage.

The truth about battery cages is that hens don’t even have space to spread their wings! The Proposition 2 in CA that mandated cage-free systems though, does not really call for cage-free but rather bigger cages. Cages big enough so that hens can lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely. So if you’re in California, your regular eggs are actually “cage-free” – at least according to the California Proposition 2 definition.

However, that’s not the cage-free system that large restaurants are demanding. To meet their expectations, farmers build aviaries: massive industrial barns that house thousands of birds, without about 1 square foot for each bird. The birds can jump up or down. These places are definitely crowded, but the birds are not crammed the way the are in the battery cage system.

Other truly cage-free options are free-range and organic.

Cage-Free Eggs Vs. Regular Eggs: Why We Got To Cages.

In the old days, chicken farming used to be cage-free. My grandmother for example, who used to have chicken, would keep them in a small pen that provided plenty of space on the inside, and gave the hens outdoor access (this model is not just cage-free, it’s free-range.) Why did we even advance to cages?

My grandmother’s “operation” was very different from modern factory chicken farming. But at the same time, my grandmother used to keep 10 hens or so, while factory farms can easily have hundreds of thousands of hens.

But even at small hen numbers, the free-range model comes with inherent disadvantages. There are good reasons farms had to innovate and create cages. Here are some of the most prominent ones.

First, cages make manure management easy. Bird hygiene goes up!

Unlike humans who get toilet-training, birds just “unleash” their manure wherever. Then they walk on it. Then they walk on their “friends'” poop. Oops, they walked on poop again. And here! Oh no!

Their now dirty feet have poop that they spread wherever they go! Fun!

Manure is a serious problem. It can get the hens sick (did you know hens actually eat some of it as they roam around? Not to mention feet diseases.) And manure pollutes the air with ammonia. Managing it efficiently is a problem that farmers needed to solve.

Enter cages. Battery cages are multi-leveled so that chicken don’t step on their own poop. They’re also super-easy to clean – just remove the manure belt! Watch the video below to get a sense of what I’m talking about. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be impressed at how clean these cages are, esp. when taking into account the number of non toilet-trained birds in the room.

(That said, clean cages and high air quality also depend on farm management.)

Second, chicken are jerks. Cages protect them.

Did you know that a hen can attack – and even kill – another hen? Did you know that violence can actually be a common behavior?

Who gets to eat first, who gets the best spot in the pen – these are determined by the “pecking order.” A pecking order that’s strict and not open to newcomers. What, you’re a hen new to the pen? Well, you’ll get hostility by most of the hens. Does it happen that’s it’s late at night and you have no access to outdoors to escape? Enjoy a bloody death as one-by-one the existing hens join forces to peck at you together.

Obviously, cages solve that problem.

Third, cages provide safety from predators.

Eagles, foxes, coyotes, and other animals are natural chicken predators. In a cage, hens are safe. When they’re free-range, well expect to have losses.

For example, in this video you’ll see free-range (not just cage-free) hens with outdoor access. The farmer said that he uses maremma dogs to protect from predators – not a failproof safety system but at least it’s something.

Fourth, cages make egg production more efficient – and cheaper.

Battery cages make it easier to collect eggs; the eggs roll down a hill to a collection area, never coming into contact with manure. As I said before manure is much easier to clean in the cage system. Plus hens don’t move requiring less food. The result is cheaper eggs.

Of course, cages come with drawbacks.

The obvious one has to do with hen happiness. Yes, caged hens die less frequently than hens in other systems, and it’s harder for them to get murdered by other hens or predators, but they are also not able to move (which by the way leads to osteoporosis.) This seems cruel to me.

The problem is that each housing system has pros and cons and we still haven’t found a solution that allows to “have the cake and eat it too.” As the authors of a 2011 hen welfare study conclude:

The more complex the environment, the more difficult it is to clean, and the larger the group size, the more easily disease and parasites are able to spread. Environments such as conventional cages, which limit movement, can lead to osteoporosis, but environments that have increased complexity, such as noncage systems, expose hens to an increased incidence of bone fractures. More space allows for hens to perform a greater repertoire of behaviors, although some deleterious behaviors such as cannibalism and piling, which results in smothering, can occur in large groups. It appears that no single housing system is ideal from a hen welfare perspective.

Cage-Free Eggs Vs. Regular Eggs: Head-to-head Comparison

Cage-Free Eggs Vs. Regular Eggs: Are there any nutritional benefits?

I looked into the literature but didn’t find a study that compared cage-free eggs to regular eggs. I did though find one that compared vitamins A, E, and fatty acid profiles between eggs from pastured hens and regular ones. The study found higher Vitamin E concentration and “better” fatty acid profiles.

Pastured hens get to roam outside and hence have a different diet than regular and cage-free hens (cage-free hens don’t have outdoor access.) Just like grass-fed beef has nutritional differences compared to grain-fed, it only makes sense that eggs from pastured hens have a different profile.

What I didn’t know though was whether this difference was significant. I mean, double the quantity of something minuscule might still be minuscule. To interpret the results I turned to Tim Crowe, an Associate Professor in Nutrition at Deakin University in Melbourne and writer at Thinking Nutrition:

The study is interesting in that it showed a favourable change in some nutrients by percentage change, but needs to be put into context for a whole diet and in terms of how many eggs a person would normally eat and the absolute level of the nutrients in the eggs to start with.

For example, 30 grams of walnuts has many fold higher amount of omega-3 fatty acids than eggs. Eating eggs from a pasture-fed hen may give a small nutritional advantage, but I suspect there may be greater reasons for people to choose such foods based on animal welfare issues, rather than any perceived small health benefit.

Cage-Free Eggs Vs. Regular Eggs: What about antibiotics?

Antibiotics are rarely fed in hens. When they are given, it’s to treat an illness – which is, by the way, the humane thing to do. Previously sick birds have to go through a withdrawal period before they can “get back in action.” So that’s how there are no antibiotics in your eggs, regardless of the label.

Cage-Free Eggs Vs. Regular Eggs: What about hormones?

Chicken are never fed with hormones. The no-hormone label is only a marketing ploy. ALL eggs are hormone-free by law.

Other egg questions:

To research and write about this topic I had to first understand a few things about hens and their lifecycle. So I asked Wes Neilson, a chicken farmer from Washington, to tell me some interesting facts about them. Here are my top picks:

  • Brown vs. white eggs: Rule of thumb is brown hens lay brown eggs; white hens lay white eggs.
  • Hens lay about an egg per day, from around 20 weeks up to 60 or 70 weeks, when they’re sometimes slaughtered, as egg production drops 50% or more.
  • Some companies force the birds to “molt” (which is a natural process by which they regrow their feathers) by starving them or giving them a special low-nutrient feed.  Once the molt is complete, (about four weeks) egg production slowly increases, though it doesn’t approach the peak egg-a-day rate, leveling off at about 80% of the former peak, which is pretty short-lived, and production again drops to every other day as the hens near 100 weeks of age.

Cage-free eggs vs. regular eggs: What’s the verdict?

As I said in the beginning of the article cage-free has won, because this is where consumer demand is going. From a health perspective, there’s no nutrition difference between cage-free and regular eggs and there’s hardly any difference between eggs from pastured-raised hens and regular eggs.

The real differences are:

  • Price: Making cage-free or free-range systems work is trickier and more labor-intensive. Mortality of hens goes up in these systems which further reduces productivity.
  • Animal welfare: Battery cages confine hens without even the ability to move. Going to cage-free or free range allows hens to experience a more hen-like life – even though this life increases their risk of death or murder. Research on housing systems and how they affect a hen’s stress is still not clear on who’s the winner (from a stress-response perspective.)

At this time I have no clear guidance to help you make a decision. I feel this is personal. We still need to innovate on housing systems to provide a better environment for hens; an environment that helps us both produce low-cost eggs and that helps hens thrive, letting them move but also keeping them free of disease and safe from aggression from other birds. Is this possible? Time will tell.

So what type of eggs do you shop? Why? Leave a comment below.

 

References

D. C. Lay Jr et al., Hen welfare in different housing systems. 2011 Poultry Science, doi:10.3382.

H.D. Karsten et al., Vitamins A, E and fatty acid composition of the eggs of caged hens and pastured hens. Renewable Agriculture and Food Systems, Volume 25, March 2010, pp 45-54.

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  1. The slight nutritional difference also makes for eggs with firmer whites and stronger yolks which is important if you are a baker our a chef (or a foodie).

    I’m a local-free-range egg buyer, myself. Small farms mean small numbers of birds which eliminate all of the ammonia and crowding and illnesses and pecking order issues that plague large operations, I kow the birds are treated well, and I am supporting my local economy. Doesn’t get much better than that!

    1. Hi Jeanette, egg quality is actually measured by “grades.” There’s grade AA, grade A, and grade B. Those grades are not dependent on whether the hens are cage free or not. Also, vitamin and fat content are a different issue than egg quality.

      From https://www.uspoultry.org/faq/faq.cfm:
      “Grade AA eggs have thick, firm whites and high, round yolks. Their shells are clean and unbroken. Grade A eggs are like Grade AA, but their whites are “reasonably” firm. Grade A eggs are usually sold in stores. Grade B eggs have thin whites and wider yolks.”

      Also, aggression exists even in small numbers. Pecking order is just how hen communities organize themselves. Giving birds more space helps but farmers still need to be careful – for example, adding a new, younger and hence smaller, hen to the group is a no-no. Newcomers need to have at least the same size as existing hens. When violence comes up usually the offending hens need to be removed for a few days from the pack and then be re-introduced (by then a new “pecking order” has been established.)

      Thanks for your comment.

  2. The white egg vs brown egg tidbit is incorrect, you can normally tell by the color of their ear lobes. Red earlobes are brown egg layers, white are white egg layers. But that isn’t standard either, mostly helps distinguish breeds of chicken. Also, I can guarantee that my backyard chicken eggs taste far better than anything in the supermarket (even grade A or AA). So flavor should be on the list of why you may choose something other than commercial eggs.

    1. Flavor is subjective. You might like the flavor better, and someone else might not. To each their own as far as opinion goes.

  3. First, thank you for writing this. Thank you for using appropriate sources! As someone involved in production agriculture, (not chickens though) I thought you presented a well written and reasonably unbiased piece. I also appreciate you said the choice is up to individuals.
    Yet, here is where I take issue. You touch on the costs as well…. But here’s the thing: the choice is no longer up to individuals. The choice has been handed down by a few with loud voices and deep political pockets. We’ve used our affluence to affect others. The ones who voted for and passed legislation didn’t make a choice for themselves, they made it for all. What about the single parent who could previously afford eggs as an economical source of protein, but no longer can due to rising costs? Here’s the really crappy thing: cage-free, traditional, free-range, etc were ALL available choices before legislation. They were all available and priced within their respective markets. Maybe you had to do some looking and it wasn’t as easy as going to your local grocer to find the kind of eggs you had a preference to, but they were available. We live in a country where we are blessed to have this diversity and choices, yet we seem hell bent to take that diversity away (so long as it benefits what’s deemed “morally superior” in our opinion). You know what’s not morally superior? Using our affleunce to affect the eating and HEALTHY lives of others. Is sad and sickening. You want free-range and have the means to afford it, great! Go buy your eggs, but please don’t push your agenda on others – it’s not morally superior in any way. I know this is a rant, but I feel that bringing up CHOICE is a thing. We had the right to choose which we preferred and given consumer demand that’s not going away, but like you’ve pointed out, there wasn’t anything grossly wrong with the other system and it provided an economical source of protein to many. Not so much anymore.

  4. Very well written piece. As one who had less than 20 chickens for about 15 years, you are absolutely correct that aggression is common even in a very small flock, and even if there is always food available. Birds are just plain nasty to each other. Chickens who are at the bottom of the pecking order *want* to go in a cage, even if it is small. My birds got killed by wild predators and neighbors’ dogs when they were running loose. Everyone who wants “cage free” needs to be required to watch chickens being mutalated and killed by predators or other chickens. They should have to go into their chicken pen and deal with a badly injured, but still-alive bird. After you go through that a few times it become real clear that cages are a much more humane approach to keeping chickens.
    As one who has lived at the bottom of the economic ladder for many years, I can tell you first hand that every food dollar counts, and the people with money who are demanding more expensive production systems have no idea of the negative impact their idealism has on the 50% or more of the U.S. population that worries week to week if there will be money to buy groceries.
    Maria, keep up the good work! The world needs your rational perspective in so many ways.

  5. Or, you know, you could avoid exploiting animals altogether and just eat a plant-based diet, like many successful athletes have. There are many good and healthier alternatives to eggs. I’m disappointed, but sadly not surprised, that this wasn’t even presented as an option. Even from a nutritional standpoint eggs are cholesterol bombs. From an animal welfare standpoint almost all layer hens, including “free range” and “cage-free” ones, come from hatcheries where the males were killed shortly after hatching by either suffocation, gassing or being ground up alive. The kindest thing we can do to non-human animals is to not bring them into this world just to deny them so many of their natural behaviors and kill them far short of their natural lifespans just so we can use their bodies for milk, eggs and meat.

    1. Maura, about 1/3 of the world’s population carries a genetic mutation that allows us to digest milk. If humans had evolved over the last million years or so to live on plants, our bodies would not waste resources producing enzymes specifically designed to digest milk and meat. Eating eggs is common to a large range of species, from bacteria to insects to mammals and humans; eating eggs is part of the “natural” behavior of many, many species. As Maria has pointed out repeatedly in numerous essays, and as most biochemists and molecular biologists would tell you, individual foods are not by themselves “healthy” or “unhealthy” – that type of thinking is promoted by people who make a lot of money promoting scams to people who can’t tell fact from hype. What is “healthy” is a diet that includes as many different foods as possible while maintaining a calorie input that is such that you maintain minimal body fat. To put this another way: our bodies are programmed to use the resources required to generate chemicals that digest sugars, meat protein, milk, and eggs. By artificially following a diet that does not include the foods you are genetically programmed to eat, you are not following the diet nature intends for you to follow. To specifically address eggs, there is zero harm in eating eggs. What is harmful is if your daily diet does not contain enough protein to meet your needs, or if you are consuming very high levels of something else instead of (say) eggs. While for years there was a favorite hypothesis that high cholesterol intake was associated with heart disease, many years of accumulated evidence now suggests that cholesterol intake may not be a strong determinate for blood levels of cholesterol. Eating two or even four eggs a day can contribute to an overall “healthy” diet, depending on what other 30 or so other foods you eat as part of your normal food intake. Remember, if you eat a “vegan” diet, that is most assuredly not “natural”, and your body is not designed for that type of diet. You cannot argue with genetics – it is what it is.

    2. A lot of people have a lactose intolerance. Cows milk causes inflamatiom on many people even if one can drink it, doesn’t mean one can proparly digest it, so I do think the number you stated is a little high since many people are intolerant but only to a certain degree. Also, todays milk is treated with hormones unlike milk of the past. That can trigger acne. Wheat, has actually been crossed with another type of grass that contains a much higher amount of gluten are ouncestors were probably not adapted too. The milk part is what I mostly disagree with you. Cows milk has not been in human diet long enoughf, goats milk may be more digestable and used for a longer time to be natural. It is important to question and research information given and decide for oneself what one truly believes is more accurate. Technicly we are omnivores and with new technology and knowledge we may be able to get all our nutrition from plants since we are not strictly carnivores. One can perhaps get proper nutrition from plants alone now at days, but in the past probably not because of our environment, and plants only giving fruits at certain times. I do believe we are better suited to eating plants, eggs, and meats but not milk. With new technology and better access to crops out of season and in sufficient quantities one may actually be able to eat only plant products, while eating meat may have helped our ancestors survive hard times, one can probably get enoughf nutrition from plants now at day since cooking as made certain plant based foods more digestable without having to spend so much time eating in order for our body to digest some of it.
      We don’t have to spend hours eating like other hervivores. Ofcourse one had to be very knowledgable in selecting the plant products because sometimes high concentration of nutrition can be found in certain plants, such as seeds, but some have high amounts of lectin which have to be cooked or go through a soaking process. While you may say being a vegan is not natural, well deinking milk from a cow is not very natural yet we have adapted and found ways to even make lactose free milk. So I do believe her body can be designed to eat a vegan diet, it is not such a big difference from our ancestors since few thousand years ago they probaly did not eat meat daily and with proper selection and modification her body should be designes to handle such change, it is not so drastic. While one may think it is not normal or natural for a hairy dog to live in Dubai, I am sure they are several. With technological modifications the dog can live there, just because the dog is not a natural desert dweler does not mean he can’t live there, he can breath the air there and regulate his temperature so sure it can be normal for a hairy dog to live in the desert. If a dog can live in the desert one can certainly live on just plant nutrition, after all our system is adapted to digest plants. What I mean is that saying a person is not designed to eat only plants is not totally true, a person can be designed to handle on plant products because we haven’t evolved to far away from plant eating apes, for us not to be able to be sustained through them. Maybe in the past it would have been harder to get proper nutrition with only plant products, but with technology our human design should be able to survive fairly well with only plant products.

    3. Rodrigo,
      First, “…milk is treated with hormones…” is FALSE. Milk is a very complex material that includes tens of thousands of different biological chemicals in very small amounts. The only chemicals that are actual “hormones” in milk are those that are there because the cow puts those her milk. A cow can be given more of a hormone she already makes, and under some conditions she will make more milk than if she were not given that treatment. But milk is NOT treated with hormones.
      *
      The claim that milk causes acne is not true. There is zero scientific evidence that milk causes acne. If you have acne, talk to a board-certified dermatologist.
      *
      The digestives system does not have to be “adapted” to particular foods. That idea is nonsense. You eat literally hundreds of thousands of different proteins and other biologically produced chemicals every day – and you regularly eat proteins and other compounds that you have never eaten before in your life, because all living things continually mutate in small ways, creating slightly different versions of the proteins of which they are made. Zero “adaptation” is required.
      *
      I will repeat what I stated earlier: approximately 1/3 of the world’s population has a specific gene that produces a specific protein that allows them to digest milk. If your ancestors 8,000 years ago lived in Europe or in certain places in Africa or southeast Asia, they you probably have that gene – about 90% of people of European decent have the gene. Being able to digest milk, or not, depends on that one gene. That gene exists in many of us today because people who lived 5000 to 10000 years ago who had that gene had a better chance of living and having children that lived than those who did not have that gene. Back then, being able to drink milk was literally the difference between life and death during times of drought and famine. So yes, drinking milk is very “natural” if you happen to have the right gene.
      *
      Keep this in mind: less than 5% of people who claim to have a food allergy actually have a food allergy. It is somehow socially popular to say you have a milk allergy or gluten allergy, but the reality is that very, very, few people actually do, no matter how much they want to believe that they have such an allergy. Scientifically conducted research has found that while 30% of American adults believe they have a food allergy, in reality only 1% to 2% actually do have a food allergy. On average, if 25 people tell you they have a food allergy, 24 of them are lying. The same is true of children – 30% of parents believe their child has a food allergy, but the reality is that more like 4% to 8% of all children have a food allergy (and almost all of them will not have a food allergy as adults).
      *
      While I appreciate your confidence in technology, and you are welcome to eat whatever you want, I object strongly to anyone trying to dictate what other people eat based on an ideology. Prohibitions against eating this or that are common in many religions of the world, and some of those prohibitions probably reflect ancient wisdom founded in local experiences. However, we now understand why we sometimes get sick after eating certain foods, and how to avoid those illnesses. If you personally do not want to drink milk, you don’t need to justify doing so. But it is not your place nor mine to tell anyone else they should or should not drink milk. The scientifically determined evidence on the subject is clear: the ability to digest milk is based on a specific, inherited gene. A very few people have a true allergic reaction to one or more proteins in milk, independent of their having or not having the genetic ability to digest milk. The digestive system digests hundreds of thousands of different compounds, and does not need to be “adapted” to a specific food. These are all scientifically verifiable facts that are easily verified if you read the scientific research literature. People who dispute these facts may have political or commercial objectives that may or may not be in your personal best interests.

    4. I meant to say that cows are treated with hormones. I do think something in milk can triger acne. I do agree with some of your views but not all. Thank you for your input. It sure was a lot to read. I hope you don’t respond to this comment with a huge paragraph again because I read your point of view and respect the time you took to reply to explain it. Thank you.

    5. Rodrigo, So far as I know, everything I stated is verifiable scientific evidence, and represents the current understanding agreed to by scientists who do research directly applicable to those topics. You and I do not get to chose which facts are true, any more than we get to choose that the sky is normally blue or that a tree has green leaves in the spring. Facts are facts. If there is a statement that I made that contradicts published scientific literature, please tell me, along with references to the appropriate scientific literature.

  6. I totally agree! Humans are much more likely to be mugged when they freely roam the neighborhood, so we should write laws mandating people stay in their houses at all times. Of course, that’s markedly LESS cruel than putting chickens in tiny cages for their entire lifespan.

  7. Great coverage of this topic by a terrific writer. I was always a regular egg guy because they were much less expensive and contained the same nutritional values. However, after reading this article I will only buy cage free (large enclosures) because it seems to be the best compromise between pleasure and safety for the hens. No brainer for me. Why would anybody purposely choose the caged eggs if they knew the hens could not even move around. Yikes that’s just cruel. Thanks for the info.

  8. Claiming that the nutritional differences between free ranged eggs and caged factory farmed eggs is negligible is patently false. The levels of vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats are significantly higher in free ranged eggs. Just as with any other animal cows, pigs, etc their meat, eggs, and milk will have significant and meaningful higher amounts of nutrition when they live healthy lives eating food they are meant to eat.

    Essentially you are what you eat, eats. Feed a cow, or any other animal essentially just corn and they will be fat and sick and will have meat and milk that is deficient in vitamins, minerals, and fat that has skewed, unhealthy, ratios of different fatty acids. We get nutrients from what we eat, animals and even plants are the same. If we aren’t eating the proper range of foods with the proper nutrients then we will be deficient in whatever is lacking in our diet that can’t be created in our body.

    Plants need specific vitamins and minerals from the soil to be healthy, otherwise they will be deficient in them. Animals also need food sources with the proper nutrients in them as well, just as we need the proper nutrients in our food.

    Also do all you vegans even know how plants get their vitamins and minerals? Yes, the soil, but how does it get IN the soil? From poop yes but also, this is important, DEAD things. From other dead plants and animals. So if you’re constantly growing crops, harvesting them, and sending it out to be sold and eaten then that soil gets stripped of it with no way to replace it. How is it replaced? Fertilizer, which is poop and DEAD ground up animals. How do you think they get the dead animals for the fertilizer? Not to mention the countless small animals, insects, and bacteria that are killed throughout this entire process. Everything you eat requires death to be produced, even fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Eating vegan still contributes to the deaths of countless living beings, you’re just not directly eating an animal or animal product. Those fruits and veggies still require dead animals and animal products to be produced and always will.

    The whole food issue should be looked at in terms of the way our food sources are treated and making sure that the foods contain the proper nutrients at the proper level without letting them be contaminated with dangerous substances like pesticides, microplastics, mercury, etc. It is not possible to remove death from the equation. Death is a necessary part of life. All life has to consume to live and grow. You can’t create what life needs to consume from nothing. All life does and is in turn consumed by other living things, this is the circle of life. It’s pretty simple and people who claim meat and death isn’t necessary to eat are vastly ignorant of this. I do agree though that “factory’s farming is atrocious, cruel, and not beneficial to humans except the ones profiting from it.