Egg-splained: Free-range, cage-free and organic
August 20th, 2010
11:30 AM ET
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Got eggs on the brain? In light of the salmonella-based recall of 380 million eggs from Iowa's Wright County Egg, we've hatched up a primer on a few common terms.

Free-range: The USDA does not specify the quality or size of the outside range nor the duration of time an animal must have access to the outside or the amount of space available to them, and there is no mandate that the chickens are fed organically or are hormone and antibiotic-free.

For a chicken - and their eggs - to be labeled "free-range" or "free-roaming" the USDA regulations state, "Producers must demonstrate to the Agency that the poultry has been allowed access to the outside." According to the Egg Safety Board, outside the United States, free-range "denotes a method of farming husbandry where the animals are allowed to roam freely instead of being contained in any manner."

While some egg producers are truly free-range, and the chickens remain outdoors for a good deal of the time, there is nothing preventing a factory farm from labeling eggs as free range, merely because the structure in which the chickens live has a door to an outside yard.

As author Michael Pollan notes in 'The Omnivore's Dilemma' – his 2006 treatise on the origins of several modern foods – "Since the food and water remain inside the shed, and since the little doors remain shut until the birds are at least five weeks old and well settled into their habits, the chickens apparently see no reason to venture into what must seem for them an unfamiliar and terrifying world." There's a very good chance that a free-range chicken, raised for either eggs or meat, has never seen the light of day.

Cage-free: There isn't a legal designation eggs as cage free. Many factory farms keep their laying hens in so-called "battery cages" - typically rows and rows of wire cages in which chickens are given insufficient room to accommodate their wingspan.

In a study by the Humane Society of the United States, Dr. Suzanne Millman, Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph, Canada reports that "The recommended space allowance for laying hens in some countries is 60-80 square inches per hen, barely enough for the hen to turn around and not enough for her to perform normal comfort behaviors; however, many hens are allowed less than even that meager amount."

In a cage-free facility, battery cages are not used, and typically a hen will have enough room to walk around and extend her wings, but the facilities may still be crowded, and birds may still be "debeaked." This entails the trimming of a portion of a bird's beak in order to combat cannibalism and feather pecking that may occur among birds kept in close quarters.

In July, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed A.B. 1437 into effect, making California the cage-free state in the US. The bill requires that starting in 2015 all whole, in-shell eggs sold in California must come from hens that are able to stand up, lie down, turn around, and fully extend their limbs without touching one another or the sides of an enclosure.

Organic: For eggs to be labeled "organic," they must come from farms that meet the USDA's National Organic Standards and are routinely inspected to ensure compliance. Hens must be fed organic feed - no animal byproducts or genetically modified or "GMO" crops - produced on land that has been free from the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three years.

The hens themselves must be maintained without hormones and other intrusive drugs and antibiotics may only be used in cases in cases of outbreak or disease. They're also kept in a cage-free environment and allowed access to the outdoors.

Consumer's best defense

However, none of this ensures that the eggs produced by any given methodology are safe. New York University professor Marion Nestle, who maintains the Food Politics website tells Eatocracy, "It’s less likely for small flocks to carry Salmonella, but it is by no means impossible."

Salmonella bacteria, generally contracted from contaminated poultry, meat, eggs, or water, affects the human intestinal tract. It's often transmitted to laying hens when rodents get into the flocks' feed, and their feces transmit bacteria to the birds.

A consumer's best defense is to wash all egg shells, store eggs at 40F or below, in the interior of the refrigerator, rather than the door, which is subject to variable temperatures, and cook eggs - yolks and all - to a temperature of 160F.

Consumers with questions should visit or call Wright County’s toll-free information number (866-272-5582), which contains a message outlining recall instructions for consumers. Consumers who believe they may have purchased the recalled shell eggs should not eat them but should return them to the store where they were purchased for a full refund.

See all egg recall information on Eatocracy and full coverage on CNN Health

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Filed under: Clarified • Eggs • Health News • News • Recalls • Tainted Food

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soundoff (294 Responses)
  1. personal training Long Island

    I buy Organic for this reason and this reason only "they must come from farms that meet the USDA's National Organic Standards and are routinely inspected to ensure compliance. Hens must be fed organic feed – no animal byproducts or genetically modified or "GMO" crops produced on land that has been free from the use of toxic and persistent chemical pesticides and fertilizers for a minimum of three

    January 21, 2014 at 6:25 pm |
  2. Gaylord Desporte


    December 1, 2013 at 10:00 pm |
  3. Smantha

    The sad truth is there is no such thing as an ethical egg. Just because chickens are cage free it does not mean they are treated humanely. Has anyone seen what chickens lives are like in a cage free barn? It is just as cruel in fact maybe even more cruel. That is from what I have seen. There beaks are still chopped off so they will not eat each other. If you want to see exactly what it looks like you can see it for yourselves.

    And what is done to the male chicks? They are sorted out males on one side and females on the other. The male chicks are killed right away. Some of the chicks are thrown away in a trash bin and the others are ground up while they are still alive. That is true of pasture eggs, cage free hens and free range hens. They just cannot afford to feed the male chicks to maturity. The sad truth is there is no such thing as an ethical egg. The realization has me really shook up. Unless you know of someone who has there own laying chickens that would be the only way to know that the chickens are being treated humanely because you can see it for yourself. I know that Peta does not support any kind of eggs because I have seen with my own eyes how the male chicks are thrown into a grinder while they are still alive. When I was growing up my sister brought home some chicks from high school because she knew they were going to be killed. We lived with our grandparents and were able to keep what I think was three or four chickens. So Virginia there may be a Santa Clause but there is no such thing as an ethical egg.

    January 6, 2013 at 10:58 pm |
  4. beatspro

    Since there is snow beats pro on the ground and she's standing in turbine pro beats her undies while jackson beats watching Eiffel Tower, she'd probably be thankful should you hurry.

    November 26, 2011 at 4:58 am |
  5. chicken coop Kory

    The benefits of raising chickens are rediculous. I have been raising chickens for over ten years for their eggs, I have noticed a change in my healthy completely. I eat 10 eggs a day for thier protein and I will never go back to ever getting store bought, farm raised eggs. It is unethical and redicuously unhealthy. I think we will see a huge shift ro raising our very own chickens very soon. Thank you for the great points.

    September 14, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
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    August 25, 2011 at 6:05 pm |
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    August 16, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
  8. Brooks Veeder

    And bookmarked! I'll definitely come back to your site more often from now on.

    June 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
  9. Jim Fells

    The subsequent time I read a weblog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as a lot as this one. I mean, I do know it was my choice to learn, but I truly thought youd have something attention-grabbing to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you possibly can fix when you werent too busy searching for attention.

    May 11, 2011 at 7:36 pm |
  10. Tania

    Under stressed conditions all animals produce a distressed hormone that is assimilated by the human body, long term consumption will most probably develop in psychic diseases and cancer. Is that a good reason for us to be concerned? I think part of the problem lies in information and education.

    September 23, 2010 at 3:34 am |
  11. Walrus

    Your article is based on poor research. You state, "For a chicken – and their eggs – to be labeled "free-range" or "free-roaming" the USDA regulations state, "... If you click the link it states very clearly that this is for FSIS regulation. They cover meat, poultry and egg PRODUCTS (processed eggs)...they do not have authority over labeling regulations on shell eggs...all of the definitions you gave regard broiler chickens and how that meat can be labeled, not eggs.

    September 2, 2010 at 11:50 am |
  12. FauxNews

    I only use free-range, cage-free, hormone-free, organic, PETA approved brown eggs produced by union chickens.

    September 2, 2010 at 10:38 am |
  13. CR6

    I like watching everyone bash WalMart like they're the bad guys. 90% of the food in WalMart is the exact same brands being sold in Safeway, Kroger and every other supermarket across the country! Also, over the past year or two, WalMart has slowly been implementing a ton of "organic" vegetables, meat, dairy products, etc into their stores. As in everything in life, you get what you pay for. Stop being so cheap and star being smarter consumers!

    August 26, 2010 at 11:12 am |
  14. CSJ

    The majority of you are idiots and should find something better to do with your time. Less than 1% of you actually know what you're talking about and the other 99% just make things up as they go along. Something they once read off another internet article. After that, they make up the details they can not remember and then some other idiot comes along, reads that comment, uses it on another forum, replaces some more information with their own "thoughts" or "opinions" and state them as fact and by this time, less than half of what was written is truth and the other half is made up B.S. that someone says is fact. Get a life people :) Everything and everyone is trying to kill you. Everyone is out to get you. It's all about politics and money. Blah blah blah.. Who cares? What doesn't kill you makes you stronger. If you're that worried about it, cook your eggs fully. Everything gives you cancer or some disease or some sort of bacterial infection. Again, blah blah blah. Life is rough... GET OVER IT! :) Flame away, I doubt I'll be back to read any of it :P

    August 25, 2010 at 12:36 pm |
  15. Larry

    City people!!! You cannot leave chickens out 24×7; they will be consumed by predators. They at least have to be put up in a large coop or pen at night. Foxes, raccoons and hawks love to eat chickens. We have been keeping about 30 to 50 chickens on our small ranch in Florida for about 7 years. Free range conditions change with the weather. Because of a severe winter and reduced food supply, we have to keep our flock in their chicken house (larger than your master bedroom) 24 hours per day unless we can be there to supervise and chase off the foxes. Free range may produce healthier eggs, but it does not necessarily mean a healthier chicken when the consequences are having half your flock consumed by predators. Been there – done that!

    August 25, 2010 at 12:11 pm |
  16. treezy

    i love beyonce

    August 24, 2010 at 10:08 am |
  17. SixDegrees

    The level of panic here is pretty humorous, given that the number of eggs involved in the current recall amounts to less than 1% of the nation's total yearly egg production.

    My approach to this problem is to ignore it, saving my energy for things that actually matter.

    August 24, 2010 at 3:54 am |
  18. inc

    We need to encourage Backyard Chickens for many reasons- food safety and availability is paramount.

    August 24, 2010 at 12:37 am |
    • SixDegrees

      So, chickens and eggs produced in an amateur's backyard with no supervision or regulation are safer than those produced under government oversight under industry standards?

      I hardly think so. Food poisoning used to be distressingly common when people raised their own foods – it would be even worse if a bunch of part-time hobbyists were doing it. The only difference between then and now is that in the past, cases were isolated to a single farm, or maybe a single town at most, whereas now potential contamination can spread across the entire state.

      The idea that small farms are somehow safer is ridiculous. They're not, and they are probably less safe than larger facilities on a unit basis. The only advantage is that their effect, when things go sour, is more limited.

      August 24, 2010 at 3:59 am |
    • Eric

      inc – you've clearly never been to a modern cage or cage-free layer barn. Go make friends with a farmer and thank them for feeding YOU today.

      August 25, 2010 at 8:51 am |
  19. Amber

    Cooking my yolks = sacrilege.

    Not eating raw cookie dough is tyranny.

    Just saying.

    August 23, 2010 at 6:33 pm |
  20. vince

    A consumer's "best defense" is stop trusting the government to do something you can do yourself - go buy a couple hens, read a pamphlet on how to raise chickens and have fun. Grandma always had a few chickens running around the yard and fresh eggs almost every other day. Very low maintenance as long as there are bugs and some grain to eat. And for apartment dwellers, no reason why the local community garden can't set aside an area for a coop and some space for chickens and create a coop to share eggs (besides its good fertilizer for the plants).

    August 23, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
  21. Nancy

    There's no such thing as 'ethical' meat. They all go to the same slaugherhouse. Go vegan!

    I've been doing it for 8 months and it's not that hard, people.

    August 23, 2010 at 12:58 pm |
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