Cage Free or Free Range
Primarily used to refer to poultry and eggs, what exactly do the terms "cage free" and "free range" mean? Well, nothing to do with the nutritional value of the egg or chicken, but it is really just used to refer to how the chickens, or hens in the case of eggs, were raised. Traditional factory farming keeps chickens in what are refereed to as "battery cages," and they are stacked on top of each other, in extremely close proximity so that they usually can't even turn or move much at all.
So here's where my confusion set in. In most cases, cage-free and free-range eggs for instance, aren't usually much more than regular old eggs, usually at most $1 more, and so to make a compromise between spending the extra $2.00 to $3.00 on organic eggs, I often buy just regular cage free eggs, like the ones you see above. Come to find out, these eggs aren't roaming the prairie, much like I'd imagined.
According to USDA food labeling regulations, here are the primary differences between regular eggs and cage-free and/or free-range eggs and chickens.
Cage-Free: This label indicates that the flock was able to freely roam a building, room, or enclosed area with unlimited access to food and fresh water during their production cycle. "Cage-free" doesn't mean the hens have access to the outdoors. Cage-free birds can engage in some natural behaviors, such as nesting and spreading their wings. However, practices such as beak cutting are allowed. Beak cutting is often required because the birds are still living in very close proximity, which often causes them to peck each other. Poultry raised for their meat are rarely caged. There is no third party auditing system to confirm compliance.
Free-Range: The USDA has defined the meaning of "free-range" for poultry raised for meat, but there are no standards in "free-range" egg production. Typically, free-range birds are uncaged inside barns 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, so it may or may not be a vegetarian diet. Beak cutting and forced molting through starvation are permitted, and there is no third-party auditing system to confirm compliance. Also to be noted, the USDA has defined free-range for poultry only, so if you see this on pork, beef, or some other product, it has no meaning whatsoever.
Do you still feel like an extra $2 for a carton of free-range eggs is really worth it now? I was a little disheartened to know that all this time, I proudly thought I was doing my part to make things a little better for the chickens, but I now feel a bit duped. Nutritionally speaking, these birds and eggs are no better for you either.