Have you ever stood bewildered in the grocery aisle doing your socially conscious best to figure out which eggs come from chickens not in cages, which come from those with access to the outdoors and which were provided with HBO?

Well, you know what we mean. We mention it because the film that took the prize for most viewed in this year’s recent PBS Online Film Festival argues that two terms many consumers have come to rely on when shopping for eggs do not necessarily indicate they came from hens that were treated humanely. “The Story of an Egg” was made by the Lexicon of Sustainability, which describes itself as a “multiplatform project based on a simple premise: People can’t be expected to live more sustainable lives if they don’t know the most basic terms and principles that define sustainability.”

In “The Story of an Egg,” Bay Area poultry farmers David Evans and Alexis Koefoed distinguish between the terms “cage free,” “free range” and “pasture raised.”

Said Evans: “The definition for cage free is a very simple one: Not raised in a cage. … It doesn’t say anything about the environment they are in, it just says something about the environment they’re now not in. Clearly we would hope the environment is better for the chicken outside of the cage, but of course if it’s standing an inch in its own muck and still can’t turn around, it begs the idea of where do we go from there?” The Humane Society agrees — sort of. In 2009, it said, “[Cage-free] systems generally offer hens a significantly improved level of animal welfare than do battery cage systems, though the mere absence of cages sometime isn’t enough to ensure high welfare.”

California’s Proposition 2, passed in 2008, requires that all farm animals be given enough room to lie down, stand up, turn around and extend their limbs. The measure goes into effect in 2015, and egg producers aren’t happy. Mitch Head, spokesman for United Egg Producers, a national trade association, said what the industry wants is a national standard. He said his organization is pushing for compromise federal legislation, crafted in concert with The Humane Society of the United States. The Egg Products Inspection Act Amendments would double the amount of space per hen as well as include areas for nests, perches and scratching. It would also nullify more restrictive state legislation like Proposition 2.

What is ‘Free Range?’

“Free range,” with its evocation of chickens on the loose roaming vast tracts of open space, is a  term the U.S. Department of Agriculture allows food producers to use as long as their animals have a demonstrated access to the outside — so any chicken or egg that was produced under that broad condition can use the label. As Salon reported in 2011: “Some producers [who label their eggs free range] include a fenced-in section of open concrete in their grow-out houses, with enough room for maybe 5 percent of the thousands of chickens in that house, and this may technically satisfy the term.”

Said The Humane Society:

“Typically, free-range hens are uncaged inside barns or warehouses and have some degree of outdoor access, but there are no requirements for the amount, duration or quality of outdoor access. Since they are not caged, they can engage in many natural behaviors such as nesting and foraging. There are no restrictions regarding what the birds can be fed. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted.”

Evans, from the PBS film winner, is the founder of Marin Sun Farms, based in Point Reyes Station; Koefoed is an owner of Soul Food Farms in Vacaville. Both sell “pastured” eggs — eggs from chickens that graze in a field.  Soul Food Farm’s website says: “Our laying hens live a dream life here. They roam acres of beautiful certified organic pasture each day. They forage for bugs, chase each other around, take dust baths, or just sleep in the sun — whatever their natural inclination.”

Mitch Head, from United Egg Producers, said this type of bird paradise is not really necessary.

“Most of the science we’ve seen doesn’t really address that there’s any difference giving chickens a hundred yards to roam versus 20 yards to roam. From a marketing standpoint I think that’s fine, but it doesn’t have any humane implications.”

Still, the conditions in which “pastured” hens live would seem to equate more with “free range” than the term, well,” free range” currently does, as so broadly defined. Again, from Salon:

What some producers and farmers call “pastured” chicken is much more in line with what many people think they’re getting with free range. This means that the birds are actually kept in coops at night, but are left to forage on grass, seeds, worms, etc., during the day. They might be fed grain as well, but they have access to a greater variety of food in their diet, and the result is much more richly flavored meat and eggs — and a much more humane life for the birds.

This 2012 East Bay Express piece also addressed the benefits of eating food from pasture-raised animals. “Eggs from pastured chickens [have] 10 percent less fat, 40 percent more vitamin A, and 400 percent more omega-3s, according to research from Iowa State University,” the Express reported.

So there you have it. Now go forth and knowledgably shop for your eggs.

Video: Do The Terms ‘Cage-Free’ and ‘Free Range’ Mean Anything? 7 May,2014Jon Brooks

  • arfflowes

    This is a very helpful post, thank you!

  • Truth can hurt

    If getting eaten by a hawk is humane then pasture is fine, I prefer my eggs to come from birds that cannot be eaten alive by preditors, they live in cages

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