What Came First, the Chicken or the Free Range?

You’ve no doubt noticed all the so-called “specialty” eggs available in the market these days: cage-free, free-range, organic, etc. Some of these designations carry a big premium in price, so it’s good to know exactly what they mean.

Research shows that these specialty designations are important to consumers. According to a poll done for egg producer Vital Farms, 50% of respondents said they look for the free-range label. Right behind that in popularity were cage-free (48%), then organic (47%).

When asked to describe the terms “free-range” and “cage-free” meant, most people thought these terms referred to hens roaming and feeding on open pastures, Vital Farms said. They were wrong.

The pastoral image of truly “free” egg-producing hens is a life guaranteed only to those that are “pasture-raised.” Yet, only 24% of the poll respondents said they looked for this designation on the label.

Vital Farms tells us that to be called “pasture-raised” or “pastured,” each hen must have unlimited daytime access to a minimum of 108 square feet of outdoor space. They must have sunlight and fresh air available to them, and must have freedom to forage for any foods that are naturally available on their pastures.

These hens are also rotated to new pastures every few days, so their vegetation is always fresh.

To be considered “free-range,” hens need only have limited access to an outdoor area that, according to Mother Earth News, may just be a pen with a concrete or dirt floor. Many “cage-free” hens are packed into barns with little or no access to the outdoors, Vital Farms said.

These hens may not actually be in a cage, but they certainly aren’t living the lives many consumers imagine when they pay extra money for those eggs.

Vital Farms adds that only the term “organic” on labels is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. No other labeling terms are regulated.

So, “organic” actually means something, and the term “pasture raised” must be on the label if you want eggs produced by chickens raised in that happy farm setting you have in your mind’s eye.

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