'Pasture Raised' vs 'Cage Free' vs 'Organic' vs 'Free Range' - How do you choose?

I'm curious, when did an egg become more than just 'an egg'? I list mine as "Pasture Raised' at the farmer's market, and I get asked all the time, "what makes your eggs so special?".

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I've learned people are confused about all of the choices available. The egg section of the grocery store has 50 different kinds of eggs, with all kinds of labels: Free-range, Cage-free, Omega-3 Enriched, Organic, Vegetarian Fed, Pasture Raised.

Only the 'Organic' label is controlled by the USDA, so it's up to the manufacturer to decide what they put on the packaging. It's up to the consumer to decide if they trust the manufacturer to label the eggs correctly, which makes it even more confusing for everyone!

No wonder we go into shock and grab the first carton we find without any broken eggs!

As I thought about this, I realized I needed to learn a bit more about the differences so I can help people make an informed decision about the best eggs to buy for their family.

Here are some things I discovered about different egg labels!

Conventionally Raised

These account for the majority of eggs raised in the United States. Chickens are in large buildings with thousands of chickens all living together. Each chicken lives in a cage about the size of a piece of paper where they live 100% of the time.

They eat, poop, and lay their eggs in this little cage! Their eggs can be washed in chlorine or lye to remove all of the bacteria, and the chickens are fed all kinds of grain, soy, and/or animal products. 

Cage Free

These are a little better than conventional, in that chickens can roam around without cages. Chickens are still in a building with an average of 1 square foot per chicken, and they don't have access to the outside. Chickens don't see sunshine or eat fresh grass. They have the same feed as conventional chickens, and their eggs are also washed in chlorine or lye to remove bacteria.

Free Range

Chickens are not in cages, and they're allowed access to the outside. The USDA recommends 1.5 - 2.0 feet per chicken, which isn't a lot of space!

Most commercial egg producers have their chickens in large buildings and provide a door for chickens to go outside if they want. The chickens can walk around and get exercise, but the outdoor access is not readily available, and it can lead to a concrete area to make cleaning easier. 

On the other hand, a lot of small farm producers use this term to explain how their chickens roam around their yard. This is why it's important to know exactly how the chickens were raised, which means knowing the farmer!

There is no designation as to what type of feed the chickens are eating, so it can include grain, corn, soy, or animal byproducts. 

Vegetarian Fed

This one really confuses me, as I know for a fact chickens LOVE bugs! You should see them chase each other when one of them finds a slug, worm, lizard, small snake. It's chaos!

Chickens are omnivores, so they need the variety in their diet in order to produce healthy eggs. This label seems to designate the animals are not fed any animal byproducts. It does not say anything about how the chicken is raised, but to be 100% vegetarian fed, the chickens would need to be inside and have no access to the outside.

Organic

The chicken's feed is grown without pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The chickens must be uncaged and have access to the outside. There isn't a space requirement set by the USDA, so chickens can still be raised inside large buildings. Based upon set living conditions and improved feed given the chickens, their eggs are less likely to have harmful bacteria, but most producers still wash them with either chlorine or lye. This can be a state requirement for large egg producers.

Pasture Raised

This is the best option, both from an animal welfare and nutrition point of view. (And I'm not saying this just because my chickens are pasture raised!) It's been found pasture-raised eggs have up to 6 times the Vitamin D, seven times the beta-carotene, increased Omega-3 and decreased cholesterol and fat.

All of this is because chickens live how you imagine - outside! Chickens can forage in the grass for bugs, worms, seeds, or whatever else they are naturally built to eat. The farmer supplements their feed, but the majority of their nutrition comes from the pasture. 

What does this mean?

My big take away from all this is that being informed is key. Knowing how your food is raised and what it eats is important so that you can make the best decision for your family.

By buying your food local and knowing the farmer, you can really understand how your food was raised. If you're ever interested in seeing how our chickens (or beef) are raised, please ask! Plan a visit to the farm or check us out on Facebook or Instagram for real pictures from the farm.

Here is a video demonstrating the Pastured Poultry difference