Organic, Cage-free, Free Range, Pasture Raised: What You Need to Know About Egg Labels
When I picked up my first chicks from the feed store, I had no idea just how much I would LOVE raising them! It was so much fun to watch them grow and soon came eggs, eggs and more eggs!! We ate scrambled eggs, boiled eggs, deviled eggs, egg salad and most other egg dishes you can think of! My kids finally revolted against eggs at EVERY meal. That is when I turned to selling eggs and now have a loyal list of customers. I had added so many girls to our flock that we became overwhelmed with how many eggs they were giving us. If you haven’t had the opportunity to raise chickens of your own, it really is wonderful to know exactly where your food comes from. Plus, they’re just SO much fun to have!
If you’re not in the position of owning your own small flock, you might be wondering, does it really matter what kind of eggs I buy? The answer is a strong ABSOLUTELY. However, walking up to the refrigerated egg section at the grocery store can leave you scratching your head. Cage-free? Free-range? Organic? Pasture-raised? What does any of it mean anyway?
I thought I’d take a few minutes to break down what each of the labels on a carton mean for the beautiful hens that laid those eggs.
To be certified organic by the USDA, hens must be fed only organic feed – no animal by-products like eggshells or ground bones – and be free of antibiotics and hormones. They must also live cage-free and free-range. (This is still very different from being pasture-raised.) I will describe these terms below. Keep in mind the Certified Organic label does allow for unnatural practices such as beak cutting and forced molting to keep the chickens laying. Organic CAN be a very healthy way to raise chickens when done right and can also be a a very "natural" sounding term to describe a very UNnatural way of raising chickens. Many commercially produced chickens are raise in extremely crowded conditions (even cage-free) with little to no access to the outdoors while still retaining the term "Certified Organic."
I consider my eggs organic (although they are not certified by the USDA.) My hens are fed a 100% certified organic feed IN ADDITION to their natural consumption of organic bugs and plants, including home grown, organic produce from my garden. I also do not administer antibiotics or hormones nor practice unnatural methods such as beak trimming and forced molting. This also means that my hens naturally produce more eggs in the spring and summer months and fewer in the fall and winter due to their natural cycles.
My chickens eating homegrown organic produce from my garden.
Cage-free has become quite the buzzword! Regulated by the USDA, the term cage-free is exactly as it sounds. Cage-free eggs come from hens that are not confined to cages but are allowed to freely roam a building, room or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water. This term can be a little deceiving, however. While the chickens are allowed to roam within crowded barns or covered chicken coops, they do not have access to the outdoors. Often times they are packed in crowded barns and stacked vertically on floors. My hens are absolutely cage free! They have an indoor coop with full time access to an outdoor "chicken run," which is an earth floor but fenced and covered for predator protection. Additionally my hens have access to a "chicken yard" which is a large , fenced outdoor area that they are released into during the day.
My newly constructed chicken coop and run, 2016
While not regulated or "certified" by a governing body, free-range is widely accepted to mean that the chickens have access to outdoor spaces. Again, this sounds nice, but it can be (and often is) as little as an indoor space connected to a confined outdoor area, sometimes even a cement slab – not necessarily roaming around “free”. Free-range hens can still be fed a corn- or soy-based grain and given antibiotics. Again, I consider my hens "free range' because like I stated above, they freely roam a large yard and eat bugs and plants.
Another term, not USDA regulated, is “pasture-raised.” This typically means that the hens roam and forage on a large pasture area, pecking and eating plants and bugs. The hens are returned to a safe coop or barn at night for protection and released again in the morning. Pasture-raised hens may still be fed GMO feed, but mostly consume lots of grass, bugs, worms and anything else they can find scratching around in the dirt. I often, but not daily, release my hens into the great outdoors with no confines whatsoever. This would be considered "pasture raised.
That is a BRIEF description of terms commonly used on egg cartons. I think I am safe in saying that these terms mean something totally different to a small, local farmer or producer than they do to most large commercial egg producers.
My hens are ORGANIC:
-They are not given antibiotics or hormones.
- I do not trim their beaks or force a molt.
- My hens diet consists of:
* what nature provides in plants and insects
* 100% organic chicken feed
* organic, homegrown vegetables from my garden
My hens are CAGE FREE:
-They are never confined to cages but allowed to roam from indoors (coop) to outdoors (run) in enclosed protection.
My hens are FREE RANGE:
-They free range in the large chicken yard in the grass and native vegetation.
My hens are partly pasture raised:
- I often release them into the pasture with no confines at all. I don't do this daily because of the predator possibilities, but I do when I am available to keep an eye on them.
Well, I think that about covers it! Still confused? My best advice is this: if you would like to know more about where your eggs come from, find a farmer or rancher (like me!) and ask them how their hens are raised. I promise you your local chicken-keeper will know much more about their animals than any egg label will tell you!