U.S. Sees A Boom In Cage-Free Eggs, But Are They More Nutritious?

Mar 25, 2016

Credit Sarah Fentem / WBAA

The City Foods Co-Op in downtown Lafayette is the kind of place one can buy locally-sourced maple syrup or $7.00 jam.

It’s also where people such as Rashied Wallington go when they want to feel good about what they eat.

Wallington, who says he came in because he wants to support local farmers, says he supports large chains such as McDonalds making the switch to cage-free eggs.

“The way it’s going as far as the younger generation they’re more concerned about health now, it’s a step in the right direction,” Wallington says. “But I hope it starts something even bigger.”

Like a lot of people, Wallington equates the label “cage-free” with being healthy.

“Chicken and hens being all caged up so far from their natural environment, where they’re distressed and they’re able to disease faster…it’s just like they’re freer, they’re more open, they’re happier,” he says. “I think you get a better product.”

But scientists say cage-free eggs aren’t necessarily more nutritious. 

Rashied Wallington takes a look at the pasture-raised eggs at City Foods in Lafayette
Credit Sarah Fentem / WBAA

Going cage-free is a massive trend in the food production industry right now. In the last six months, retailer after retailer has pledged to make the shift to cage-free. And it’s not just places like Peets Coffee…we’re talking BIG FOOD – the likes of Denny’s and Kroger.

So what does cage-free actually mean? Experts say the rules are so loose it doesn’t necessarily mean a chicken living a bucolic life wandering around a gigantic pasture.

Brianna Schroeder, a lawyer with Janzen Ag Law in Indianapolis, says there’s no statute saying what can and can’t be labeled cage-free…

“Except for ‘certified organic,’ the federal government doesn’t regulate the use of cage-free or free-range or anything like that, and neither does Indiana,” Schroeder says.

She says it’s mostly up to the egg producers themselves: “Where that term usually comes in is the industry itself sort of sets up standards.”

Most cage-free egg producers label themselves as such under the guidelines of a group called the United Egg Producers, or UEP.

UEP guidelines mandate a floor system that allocates around 1 to 1.5 feet of space to each chicken. That’s twice as much as a traditional battery cage. However, just because a hen doesn’t live in a cage doesn’t mean it ever sees the light of day. Most of the time, cage-free hens still live in warehouses or barns. The food industry website Eater equated living in a cage-free system to living in a mosh pit instead of living in an elevator.

So do people consider cage-free eggs healthier? Research says so. For example, a study in the journal Poultry Science says consumers believe brown, cage-free eggs have a higher nutritional value than white, caged eggs.

But science says something different:

“Bottom line is there’s really not a lot of different in the nutritional quality of eggs from cage-free versus caged systems,” says Purdue University animal sciences professor Patricia Hester. She says environment has an effect on the nutritional content of eggs, but it’s mostly tied to what chickens eat, not how much space they have.

“As long as they have a high quality diet, you can provide that for both systems and therefore the nutrition of the egg doesn’t differ that much between the different types of management systems.”

That’s not to say there isn’t a connection though. Cage-free is a big umbrella. It can encompass pasture-raised hens, who have a more varied diet, which makes for more vitamins in the yolks. But it can also encompass hens who live in those warehouses, too.

And in fact, sometimes cage-free systems can cause problems.

If, for example, those cage-free hens ARE going outside, they’re not only ingesting that good varied diet, they’re also ingesting whatever’s in the environment, too. That can mean environmental pollutants can get into eggs.

Also, when chickens are free to move around, they’re also more likely to contract parasites and diseases, as well as fight and even eat each other.

However, scientists also say chickens are a lot more psychologically healthy when they can move around…and that commitment to animal welfare is what’s behind most people’s preference for cage-free. Even when they’re only given a square foot of space, they can flap their wings, preen, turn around in a circle, and engage in other chicken-y behaviors.

But when it comes to whether cage-free settings produce healthier eggs, researchers say that claim is for the birds.