In the Part 1 of Understanding food labels I have discussed a brief history of the free-range and cage-free chicken and the beginning of the transition to the cage-free chicken. I continue, as the pressure of having the cage-free chicken began building, the egg suppliers ended up having to give in.
They didn’t like it but the law of supply and demand prevailed. If this is what their customers wanted, they’d do it. Rose Acre Farms, one of the biggest egg producers, is converting its operations to cage-free, and likely all the major suppliers will follow the suit. The fast food industry has given its vendors until 2025 to produce range-free eggs. This seems like an awfully long time but the problem is, this can be done only with a new generation of chickens and will take time. Birds that live in cages can’t be converted into the range-free kind due to the different lifestyle.
What exactly is free-range?
USDA defines free-range as simple as allowing access to the outside. Quite vague if you ask me. There are no specific requirements for the amount, duration, and quality of outdoor access that leaves the subject open to the interpretations. USDA remains silent about a definition of cage-free birds.
Wall Street Journal sheds more light on this by describing the main difference between free-range and cage-free chickens. Cage-free birds are, well, uncaged, and while being able to freely roam a barn, they generally don’t have access to the outdoors. Free-range birds, on the other hand, are both cage-free and have access to the outdoors.
Basically, cage-free means that the chickens are not placed in the battery cages. However, it doesn’t mean that they have plenty of room to roam around. If chickens can move freely in a chicken coop, then they are technically cage-free. Such as the one below.
But are free-range or cage-free eggs nutritionally better than their counterparts in a caged environment? It depends who you ask. My google search has produced quite a number of opinions, including some sites describing the mistreatment of chicks quite graphically (albeit lacking the images of such) while questioning your mental status by suggesting you being a sociopath lacking empathy for the suffering of animals.
Yet some other sites state unequivocally that “cheap” chicken are the ones that were “treated poorly while alive”, of “questionable healthfulness”, were “slaughtered cruelly”, and “produced in a way that damages the environment”, whatever this means. Again, they state that free-range chickens are better than caged ones yet don’t explain exactly how they are better.
The answer posted by USDA in their Q&A section, states that the terms free-range and cage-free chicken both have to do with the hens housing and don’t necessarily make a nutritional difference for lack of scientific data.
As far as I am concerned, I am not convinced that paying $6 for a dozen of eggs makes sense. So I’m paying about one-third of that for the eggs of my choice, and my body doesn’t seem to mind. YMMV