When we go to the grocery store, we tend to know exactly which cereal we want, which ice cream flavor, which brand of chips, etc. However, once we get to the egg case, our jaws drop and eyes widen as we try to decipher why one carton of eggs costs $1.99 and another $8.99.

We see terms like free-range, cage-free, organic, and pasture-raised and think we know the difference but really couldn’t explain them if we tried.

The real differences might come as a shock. Marketers have done an amazing job hiding the truth behind how these hens actually live, and the labels are actually quite misleading.

Warehouse eggs, while the least expensive, are the worst in terms of ethical treatment of animals. However, cage-free isn’t much better. While the hens are not in cages, they are still cramped in barns, have no access to the outdoors, and 70 percent of their beaks have been chopped off to avoid “pecking incidents” (chickens get stressed when they are cramped together, so they will peck each other, resulting in injury or death). The cage-free label is not subject to regulation.

Free-range (or free-roaming) is not what we see in the chicken-selfie commercials. While the living conditions are better, they are only slightly better. These hens have limited access to the outdoors. Few free-range companies actually encourage their chickens to go outside. The free-range label requires a small, dog-door-size opening to a 10-foot-by-10-foot piece of dirt for 5,000 hens. Additionally, the free-range label is not subject to regulation.

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Pasture-raised is the highest quality in terms of ethical treatment of hens. These hens have access to 108 square feet per hen. They go outside. They eat bugs. They dust-bathe. They get to be chickens. Clearly, pasture-raised eggs are the most humane choice in this case. They are also more nutritionally dense because of the natural, buggy diet that these chickens are privileged to. The yolks are brighter and the whites are firmer. They even have lower cholesterol and more omega-3 fatty acids. This is the all-around winner in terms of ethics, nutrition, and overall appeal.

Here's a quick breakdown:

Commercial/Warehouse Hens: Horrible

  • Packed in cages
  • No outdoor access
  • No light
  • Unlimited birds per barn
  • 1 square foot per hen
  • Not regulated

Cage-Free Hens: Bad

  • No outdoor access
  • No light
  • Unlimited birds per barn
  • About 1.2 square feet per hen

Free-Range/Free-Roaming Hens: Slightly Better

  • Limited outdoor access
  • Birds rarely go outside
  • Some light
  • No natural protein in diet
  • Around 5,000 to 10,000 birds per barn
  • 1.2 to 1.75 square feet per hen
  • Limited regulation

Pasture-Raised Hens: Best

  • Outdoor access every day (except in extreme weather conditions)
  • 108 square feet per hen
  • 5,000 birds per barn
  • Lots of light
  • Bug-based diet (i.e., lots of protein)
  • Internal and external regulation

While it's true that these eggs are a bit more expensive, there are some pasture-raised varieties, such as Handsome Brook Farm Pasture Raised Eggs, that are more reasonably priced than others. We set the highest standards when it comes to our hens, but maintain lower prices (about the cost of a Starbucks Frappuccino).

Photo courtesy of Conor Harrigan


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