Difference Between Cage-Free and Free-Range
When grocery shopping today, consumers are faced with many different options that didn’t exist in the past. As organic and clean eating grow in popularity, there has been a huge increase in the amount of products catering to this market. This has also been driven by a call for more humane practices in industries that are based-upon animal products. One of the options that has increased exponentially recently is related to chickens, as you can now find cage-free and free-range products, including eggs, available to consumers. These two terms may sound like they describe the same thing, and in fact there are some similarities. The first is that in both cases, the chickens are in an environment that allows them to fully extend their wings[i] which is not the case for most eggs. Up to 95% of egg production in North America comes from facilities in which the chickens’ movements are severely restricted.[ii] So while increased movement is a commonality between the terms, there are also some differences between them.
Access to outdoor space
While both terms refer to the chicken’s ability to roam around at will, in a cage-free setting they are still typically confined to indoor space whether it be in a barn or coop. There are nest boxes within the open space that encourage them to lay eggs, and in some cases, perches are even provided to them to further encourage movement. Sometimes, in the cage-free setting, there could also be dust-bathing materials for the hens although these amenities depend upon the producer and layout of the facility.
Free-range chickens are also permitted to roam at their will although the amount of space is typically larger. They are also allowed to have access outdoors. This lets them dust-bathe which is a natural function for chickens. It also leads to a more diverse diet as they can eat grasses and occasionally they may also eat small insects or grasshoppers.[iii]
Types of chickens in each setting
While it is technically true that different types of chickens that are produced for both meat and eggs may be found in both free-range and cage-free settings, there are certain preferences. Chickens that are grown for meat, or industrial animal agriculture, are more commonly found in a free-range setting as the benefits of outdoor access are thought to ultimately affect the quality of the meat that is eventually put on the market for consumption. Though taste is an objective trait, many people believe that free-range chicken tastes better similar to the way in which grass-fed cattle produce higher quality beef with a better taste.[iv] Chickens that are raised for meat are rarely ever kept in cages prior to being transported for slaughtered as it is thought to very negatively affect quality and taste. This is not true for chickens that are raised for egg production as most of these animals are kept in cages.[v]
Another option for egg production that is becoming increasingly desirable for consumers happens in a cage-free setting. In this setting, the birds are still confined to indoors exclusively, but they are also not kept in cages which allows for unrestricted movement. This is thought to be much more humane than the caged conditions, although that claim is still controversial due to overcrowding of many of the facilities.[vi] Like chicken meat that tastes better in a free-range setting, the eggs are also thought by some to taste better than the ones found in caged or cage-free settings. Free-range chicken eggs commonly have a much darker orange-colored yolk, although this is not always true. It is also thought that the grasses and insects enhance the taste of the eggs.
As with most all foods that are considered to be more natural, healthy, or humane, the costs of free-range and cage-free eggs are higher than standard, or cage-raised, eggs. And although they are both higher, there are price differences between the two also. At a given point of time in August of 2014, a normal dozen of Grade A, Regular eggs was $2.99 per dozen. This is in contrast to a dozen of cage-free eggs which typically would sell for approximately $3.99. And even higher still would be the free-range eggs, whose starting price for a dozen would be $3.99 but may go as high as $8 a dozen for pasture-raised chicken eggs.[vii] Further, the cost of production for these types of eggs also vary. Based on numbers from the United Kingdom, on average, it costs approximately .66 pounds to produce a dozen of battery-caged eggs. For cage-free eggs, this cost is around .82 and for a dozen free-range eggs, it would cost around .98.[viii]
There is contention with the comment that there may be nutritional differences between cage-free and free-range eggs. While it is generally thought that they are similar in nutritional content, there are disputing studies to support both claims. It should also be noted that neither term automatically infers that the chicken products, whether eggs or meat, is organic. To get the rating of ‘certified organic’ there are restrictions on other things not related to the chickens’ ability to roam either indoors or outdoors.[ix]
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 Free-range eggs. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-range_eggs
[i] Kavanagh, L. (n.d.). What do the different egg labels mean? Retrieved November 17 from http://www.choosecagefree.org/what-do-different-egg-labels-really-mean
[ii] Kavanagh, L. (n.d.). What do the different egg labels mean? Retrieved November 17 from http://www.choosecagefree.org/what-do-different-egg-labels-really-mean
[iii] Kavanagh, L. (n.d.). What do the different egg labels mean? Retrieved November 17 from http://www.choosecagefree.org/what-do-different-egg-labels-really-mean
[iv] Todd, J. (2012, September 5). How does free range chicken taste compared to farm raised chicken. In Quora. Retrieved November 17, 2016 from https://www.quora.com/How-does-free-range-chicken-taste-compared-to-farm-raised-chicken
[v] Good, K. (2015, January 2). On One green planet. Retrieved November 17, 2016 from http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/think-you-know-free-range-and-cage-free-chicken-think-again/
[vi] Free-range eggs. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-range_eggs
[vii] Wong, S. (2014, August 7). How to shop for eggs –organic? Cage free? Free range? Brown vs. White. On Wake the Wolves. Retrieved November 17, 2016 from http://wakethewolves.com/how-to-shop-for-eggs-organic-cage-free-free-range-brown-vs-white/
[viii] Free-range eggs. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-range_eggs
[ix] Free-range eggs. (n.d.). On Wikipedia. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free-range_eggs