Organic vs. Free-Range vs. Cage-Free Eggs
Which eggs are best?
With the organic label on eggs, buyers feel they are buying the best quality product. The one that is healthiest for both them, the hens that laid the eggs, and the environment.
But the lines are a little more blurred than they initially seem to be.
To know that you are definitely getting good quality, healthy organic eggs, you may need to do some research into the producer and their animal and egg handling policies.
To be certified organic (worldwide), hens must be fed only organic feed and no animal by-products (such as egg shells or ground bones).
Antibiotics can not be used as a preventative measure, but can be used in case of illness. When an antibiotic is used, the farm loses organic accreditation until after the treatment ends.
Organic egg-laying hens must not be raised in cages, and must have access to outside. Unfortunately, in some countries, such as the USA, a small outside porch counts as outdoor access.
They are treated more humanely - forced molting a flock by starving them is not allowed. However, chicks may still have their beaks trimmed and be vaccinated, to protect the entire flock.
Pastured vs. pasteurized
Pastured eggs come from hens that are left to roam around a field.
Pasteurized eggs are heat-treated, to lower the risk of salmonella contamination.
Hens are allowed to roam freely within barns or covered chicken coops. EU guidelines1 stipulate the following rules for raising cage-free hens:
- One nest per 7 hens, with a maximum density of 9 hens per usable square meter in the barn.
- 45cm between each tier if a multi-tiered barn system is used.
- 15cm of perch space and 250 square centimeters of litter per hen.
There is no guarantee that birds will have outdoor access, and many never see daylight. Cage-free hens are usually fed standard commercial chicken feed.
Antibiotic use is unrestricted, chicks are usually vaccinated, and there are no guarantees against beak trimming, or forced molting (except in the UK).
Outside of the EU there are no regulations that cover cage-free eggs, or the use of the term 'cage-free'.
Free range hens are fed a grain mixture, the same as in battery and cage-free farms, but they can supplement their diet with greens and insects as they can roam (for a certain amount of time per day) around a yard, a shed or an enclosed chicken coop.
In addition to the cage-free regulations, the EU rules for free-range hens ensure that each bird has 4 square meters outside, with unfettered access throughout the day. They can run outside into daylight whenever they feel like it, which contributes to the happiness and health of the birds.
There are no restrictions on antibiotic use, vaccination, or to limit practices such as forced molting (outside the UK) and beak trimming.
In countries that are outside the EU, there are no regulations that cover free-range eggs, and the term 'free-range' may not indicate that the birds are actually allowed to roam outside their cages.
In March 2013, Coles (a giant supermarket chain) in Australia, has ruled to keep its hens in a high density 'free range' - 10,000 hens per hectare, rather than the recommended 1500 birds per hectare. Unfortunately, there is no legislation specifying the amount of space required per bird.
In June 2015, Choice published the results of an investigation into Australian free range egg producers. Find out which brands produce genuinely free-range eggs.
Free range + 1 = Pastured eggs
Pastured or open-range hens are allowed to roam in fields, collecting the majority of their own food from grasses and insects. Their diets are usually supplemented by standard grain feed.
Unless the fields have passed organic certification, they may have higher levels of environmental pollutants. This is especially so if the farm is located near a polluting source, such as a factory with inadequate filtering of air- or water-borne pollutants.
As with all hens, chicks are vaccinated, and may have their beaks trimmed. Non-certified organic flocks, or those outside of the UK may be forced to moult.
Countries outside the EU have no regulations that cover pastured eggs.
Battery or factory eggs
By far the least healthy, at least for the hens, battery farms have few restrictions.
Fed a standard commercial diet, battery hens live packed in multi-tiered cages, unable to roam, make a nest, or even flap their wings. They do not have access to litter (dust baths), and never see daylight.
Because feather pecking is a problem, beak trimming is routine. Lighting is kept low to reduce aggression.
Forced moulting, even of battery hens, is forbidden in the UK, and not common in Canada.
In a directive passed in 1999, the European Union has made battery farms illegal in EU member states from January 2012 onwards.1
In February 2013, German authorities started investigating whether 150 egg farms in northern Germany are actually adhering to the standards for labelling, with many reports that eggs have been sold as organic or free range, but are actually fed inappropriate feed (not organic), or have been kept with too many other hens in their pens.
Which eggs do you buy?
Chicken feed - organic vs. non organic
Chicken feed components
- grains - corn, barley, wheat, rye
- protein - soy, beans, ground animal by-products
- calcium - ground shells or bones
- yolk color - marigold petals, seaweed, alfalfa meal
- additives - vitamins, minerals, salt, antibiotics, grit
Organic chicken feed must be free of any gene modified (GM) components, and grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers. Organic feed crops are regularly tested for contamination, either by pollutants or by pollination from non-organic crops.
Standard commercial chicken feed (non-organic) can contain a number of additives in addition to grain (non-GM and GM) to increase immunity in flocks, increase the nutrition or shell-strength of eggs, and even alter the color of the yolk.
Nutrients in 1 large factory egg
Omega 3 fatty acids
Omega 6 fatty acids
Nutritional comparison between organic, cage-free, free-range, pastured and battery eggs.
Eggs are protein powerhouses, and supply a good variety of other nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
The conditions in which hens live, the handling of the eggs through the delivery chain, and the time the egg is stored will affect the nutrient levels.
Eggs from pastured or free-range hens, roaming freely in fields and eating vegetation and insects, have significantly increased levels of vitamins A and E, and Omega 3 fatty acids, when compared to battery-farmed eggs.2,3
Free-range eggs have also been shown to have lower levels of fat, cholesterol and Omega 6 fatty acids.3
Vitamins and minerals in 1 large factory egg
% Daily Value
% Daily Value
- Is it safe to eat raw eggs?
How to lower the risks of salmonella contamination.
Salmonella contamination of eggs
The risk of salmonella contamination is low, only one in every 30,000 eggs is contaminated.
Egg handling practices, the hens' health and laying environment can reduce the risk of salmonella contamination.
Free range or pastured hens are least likely to produce contaminated eggs as their laying environment is the healthiest.
Eggs should be washed in a sanitizing solution shortly after being laid. Locally produced eggs are fresher, which corresponds to a lowered risk.
Pasteurized eggs, especially if they are from free range hens are the safest.
Residual antibiotics in eggs
The routine use of low-levels of antibiotics to prevent illness in egg-laying flocks has been proven to increase antibiotic resistance in humans, making diseases more difficult to treat. 4
Did you know ...
Flu vaccines are usually made from fertilized chicken eggs?
Residual pollutants in eggs
It is easy for toxic pollutants to enter the food chain, and they have been shown to be present in all categories of food products, including eggs.5
- the hens' grain crops are grown in soils that have trace amounts of DDT
- egg-laying flocks are grazed in an area with toxic air/water pollutants from nearby mines or factories
Organic certification requires that pollutants along all steps of the food chain are monitored regularly.
Animal rights and welfare of egg-laying chickens
Beak trimming to reduce aggression in hens
Chicks routinely have their beaks trimmed by a number of methods, when they are one day old as they are vaccinated. There are studies that show this is a painful procedure and can result in chronic pain as the bird ages.
Trimming reduces the occurrence of pecking at surrounding birds. Plus a less stressed flock produces more eggs.
Aggression in hens can be successfully reduced by other means:
- smaller flocks.
- more space per hen.
- reducing light exposure.
- providing an interesting environment with various toys and objects.
Forced moulting to improve egg quality
Hens naturally moult yearly, or more often if they are responding to stress.
If a longer time passes between moulting, egg quality and production rate are both poor, and the birds' health suffers as they become overweight.
Egg nutrition and shell quality is improved after a new set of feathers are grown in and weight has decreased.
To induce an entire flock to moult at the same time, the hens are starved for 7-14 days.
Forced moulting is not common in Canada, and it is not allowed in the UK or in organic certified flocks.
Disposal of male chicks
To replace egg laying flocks as they age, hens are allowed to breed. Half of the hatched chicks are male, and therefore unusable in egg production.
Chicks are identified as male or female within one or two days of hatching. Male chicks are usually destroyed immediately, using a number of methods, some of which are brutally painful.
- Put through a high speed grinder.
- Suffocated with gas (usually carbon dioxide).
- Having their head cut off.
The first three are the methods recommended by the American Veterinary Medical Association for disposal of half-hatched chicks (pips) and unwanted chicks in the poultry industry.6
Locally produced eggs save on both the monetary and environmental costs of transport, and ensure your eggs are fresher when you buy them. Buying locally reduces the risk of salmonella contamination.
Eggs in cooking
How do you like your eggs?
Egg production methods and their impact
Unfortunately there is a lack of research comparing the environmental impacts of the different egg production methods. However two aspects have been highlighted:7
- Non-cage production methods result in poorer air quality and consume more fuel in winter to maintain an appropriate temperature.
- Water runoff is possible in free-range yards or in pastured systems, but the impacts are not yet studied.
So which eggs really are the best?
Organic free range or organic pastured eggs are certainly the healthiest for the birds, and because the hens are allowed to roam and eat greens and insects, they produce eggs with the highest nutritional content.
The lower pesticide content and forbidden preventative use of antibiotics in organic egg production, results in less of these chemicals ending up in our bodies.
Locally produced eggs have the lowest transport costs, and deliver the freshest eggs.
Ask your local council to find organic free range egg producers in your area.
But, even better is to ...
Raise your own egg-laying hens!
By raising your own egg-laying chickens, you ensure your eggs are fresh and clean, you know that the hens are comfortable, healthy and happy.
If they get sick, you get to choose the treatment or medication. Plus you can choose to feed them organic and non-GM foods.
Of course, this will only work if you have a yard, and your council laws allow you to keep hens.You can even rescue battery hens and provide them with a healthier life.
Build or buy a good chicken coop protected from predators, relax to the sounds of hens chattering, and collect your fresh eggs daily!
- European Union Council Directive 1999/74/EC, 1999, accessed March 2012
- Pasture-ized Poultry, Heather Karsten, Ph.D., Pennsylvania State University
- Meet Real Free-Range Eggs, C. Long and T. Alterman, Mother Earth News, October/November 2007.
Prevalence, distribution and characterisation of ceftiofur resistance in Salmonella enterica isolated from animals in the USA from 1999 to 2003, J.G. Frye and P.J. Fedorka-Cray, International Journal of Antimicrobial Agents, August 2007, 30(2):134-42
Persistent toxic chemicals in the US food supply, K.S. Schafer and S.E. Kegley, Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, November 2002, 56(11):813-7
- AVMA Guidelines on Euthanasia, June 2007, accessed 2012
Environmental impacts and sustainability of egg production systems, H. Xin, R.S. Gates, et al. Poultry Science, January 2011, 90(1):263-77
What are your thoughts on egg farming practices? Which eggs are the best?
Let us know in the comments below!